An excerpt from
The American Enemy
The History of French Anti-Americanism
Great Britain, Germany, Spain, and Italy have all been at war with the United States at one time or another. France has not. Yet as Michel Winock noted not long after the World Trade Center attacks, France is the country where "anti-Americanism has been, and remains, the most strident." This extreme paradox is part of the historical and cultural riddle of French anti-Americanism. Why are the French so anti-American? The question is all the more pertinent because it goes beyond any real or imagined relationship between France and the United States.
The recent crisis in French-American relations, serious as it was (and remains), is just the last, spectacular installment of a long and bizarre story: a century-old war of words. French anti-Americanism is not a recent fever we could use polls to chart, correlating the fluctuations with any given episode of Franco-American relations. Analyzing it as a short-term reaction to specific events or situations has never been a good way of understanding it. In the mid-1980s, pollsters and political analysts proclaimed that anti-American sentiment was in recession and would soon be extinct in France: to hear them talk, French anti-Americanism was on its last legs. Its stereotypes were outmoded, and the general public was warned against falling prey to the other extreme, a triumphant "Americanomania." Even the intellectuals, we were told, had found their "road to Damascus"; a "conversion of the intelligentsia" was described in lavish detail.
Of course the word "conversion" would not have been so out of place if the miracle had really happened. But whether it was real or only imagined, the "clearing up" didn't last. By the turn of the third millennium, the clocks had been reset. Farmers stormed McDonald's. The French government briefly took Coke off the market for public health reasons. "Lite high school" and the Americanization of higher education were publicly reviled. Accusations of "arrogance" and "unilateralism" became the daily bread of the French media again. And in the thick of the Kosovo intervention, the same French citizens who globally approved what NATO was doing in the former Yugoslavia responded to a CSA-Libération poll with more anti-American opinions than ever. France had gotten its wits back, and the intelligentsia, annoyed that a passing lull could ever have been taken for desertion, had retaken its position on the front line. With precious few exceptions, the French intelligentsia's reaction to the events of September 11, 2001, refuted any suspicion of a conversion. Only days after the attacks, the op-ed pages of major French newspapers were filled with the usual America-bashing contributions, which greatly outnumbered the declarations of sympathy or solidarity—with unexpected consequences. Exhibited in such tragic circumstances, the French intelligentsia's rampant anti-American bias backfired for the first time ever, unleashing a yearlong public debate in France on the previously taboo notion of antiaméricanisme. Such was the paradoxical effect of 9/11 in France: it confirmed how deeply rooted anti-Americanism was and, almost simultaneously, paved the way for the first national discussion of the phenomenon. At long last, the French were looking at anti-Americanism without blinking; and what they saw involved France's identity much more than America's.
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French anti-Americanism is a historical construct with deep roots in French culture. If you try to understand it by reading anything into its seasonal varieties, it is bound to slip through your fingers. Developed over and shaped by the long haul, it forces the investigator to plunge into the long haul. It did not start with the Vietnam War or with the cold war—or even in the 1930s, which was its peak. Nearly all the ingredients were there more than a century ago: its narrative structures had largely been formed, its argumentation polished up, and its rhetoric broken in as early as the 1890s. And even more surprisingly, it was already consensual. In a time of strident divisions, it was (already) the most commonly shared idea in France. From then on, it was neither exclusively right wing nor left wing. It brought together spiritualists and secularists, nationalists and internationalists. Favored by the extremes, as might be expected of any "anti" stance, it also permeated the more moderate segments of the population.
Everyone knows how the Statue of Liberty was finished before its pedestal. The statue of the American Enemy raised by the French, however, is a work in progress: each successive generation tinkers at it, tightening its bolts. But its pedestal is well established. And its foundations—the Enlightenment's strange hostility to the New World, which I will examine in the prologue—are over two hundred years old.
The present work stems from the firm belief that it is impossible to unravel the riddle of French anti-Americanism without taking a deep dive into the past. As we have noted and will see in detail, this strange cultural object is just not subject to circumstance. Passing trends have no important or lasting effect on it. Happenstance might have had a role in the early days of its development; we will see this in the case of the Civil War and the Spanish-American War of 1898. Quickly, though, the thick layering of discourses and representations amassed by French anti-Americanism allowed it to absorb exterior shocks without deviating from its flight path. France's anti-American discourse is not solipsistic, but it is largely self-referential and autarchic—two characteristics inseparable from its Sartrian "bad faith." How many incendiary rants and hyperbolic indictments of the United States are backed up and fueled by the reassuring and inadmissible thought that "nothing is really at stake here"? Clearly, that is just one more illusion or self-deception—and not the least dangerous, considering how, to give one example, such thinking helped hone France's diplomatic, economic, and moral isolation in the 1930s; or, more recently, how otherwise perfectly legitimate political and diplomatic differences could easily evolve into an all-out confrontation, by triggering anti-Americanism again and again and setting off the infernal machine of a nearly Pavlovian hostility.
Where does all this come from? Semiotics generally has a hard time defining the exact critical moment when "it takes," as Barthes put it; when a discourse takes on a certain consistency; when it can run on its own obtuseness. In France, anti-Americanism attracts a strong adherence by being a narrative, and this adherence need not necessarily be linked to any felt animosity—whence the honest protestation of those who, after spouting typical anti-American clichés, deny any ill-will toward the Americans. A discourse of this kind works through repetition. Its strength is in its stubbornness. Its peaks can of course be charted (by opinion polls, for instance), but its most important element is elsewhere: in a long, drawn-out stratification of images, legends, jokes, anecdotes, beliefs, and affects. Shedding light on all of these elements takes more than just opinion polls (which, rather than plumbing the depths, offer a snapshot of a given moment): you have to root around, dig up old deposits, excavate the matter, clear out the veins, and follow the seams.
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"I'm not anti-American. I don't even know what the word means," declared Sartre in 1946. His logic would have delighted Lewis Carroll—not to mention the Mad Hatter. The same logic still is running the show in current attempts to obstruct the concept of anti-Americanism. In fact, since Sartre's day, the hard line has only gotten harder. Anti-Americanism was an incomprehensible word for him—or comprehensible just long enough to absolve himself of it. Antiaméricanisme has been regularly described in France as "one word too many," whose use is "not innocent" and which needs to be eradicated, a machination contrived by "rabid &lsquophilo-Americans,’" a semantic plot concocted by the Yankee fifth column. As the French essayist Serge Halimi discovered and exposed in Le Monde diplomatique in May 2000, individuals with ulterior motives are hiding behind this empty word, and their mission is to "intimidate the last rebels against a social order whose laboratory is the United States." Anti-Americanism? Never heard of it. Except as a fabrication, pure and simple. Since Sartre's day, this denial has been the obligatory preamble to any use of anti-American rhetoric. Halimi's article is only a typical example of a widespread rhetorical device: everything in it works by mirror image, from the accusation of intimidation, introduced to justify censorship of the undesirable word, to the imputation that the opponent uses a "tightly screwed-together binary logic" (this masks the Manichean political views of the accusation itself). The semantic objection is there only to set the polemical machine in motion.
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Now for a more methodological objection. Even if we admit that anti-Americanism exists and that its manifestations can be pinpointed, does that give us the right to turn it into an analytical category? Given that "anti-Americanism" is part of the French "logosphere" and might even determine a certain number of attitudes and behaviors, does that mean we can raise it to the level of a concept? Doesn't that—wrongly—lend credence to the idea that America has an "essence" to which anti-Americans would thus be opposed? We cannot address this objection without quickly examining the link it presupposes between "Americanism" and "anti-Americanism."
At the end of the nineteenth century, Americanism meant, in the United States, a set of values judged to be constituent parts of a national identity, as well as the attitude of those who adopted them and attempted to conform their personal identity to this national ideal. The expression, popularized by Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the twentieth century, was inseparable from notions like being "100 percent American"—as opposed to "hyphenated American." Its intent is clear. Its content, however, is vague, as Marie-France Toinet notes, quoting Theodore Roosevelt: "Americanism signifies the virtues of courage, honor, justice, truth, sincerity, and strength—the virtues that made America." Glorified and reinforced in the 1920s by a boom in prosperity, Americanism began to expand beyond the realm of innate virtues to encompass a certain number of traits characteristic of American "civilization," not of the American man: efficiency, productivity, access to material goods. Americanism's credo, though it kept its nationalist and even chauvinistic overtones, was thus coupled with another self-defining tautology: the American way of life, which was the material facet of the word "Americanism." The key element here is that, since it came out of the need to affirm an uneasy national cohesion through the emotional and intellectual adherence of each citizen to an "idea of America" as broad as it was vague, "Americanism" never attained the status of a political or ideological doctrine.
A narcissistic self-portrait and a slogan for internal use, "Americanism" would seem to be hard to export: yet America's power overflow pushed the term all the way across the ocean to Europe. The French discovered it in the full upswing of a new (polemic) interest in the United States in the late 1920s. But their attempts to give it ideological or political substance bumped up against resistant matter: "Americanism" means above all pride in being American; apart from that, it is a catch-all. So, logically enough, the French took the word over and gave it a meaning, most often negative, that reflected their own view of the United States. David Strauss, in his book on French anti-Americanism in the 1920s, rightly notes that in French, américanisme means "the cultural values and institutions which were believed by Frenchmen to be an integral part of American civilization." Only Sartre, just after the war, would attempt to translate "Americanism" culturally: not by giving it a meaning it does not have, but by analyzing it as the psychological key to the way Americans are socialized. But his was a very personal attempt, and it had no effect on the fate of a term decidedly destined for invective in France. Régis Debray neatly summed up the semantic situation of the word in a book written in 1992. After giving a long catalog of its negative connotations, Debray concludes: "Americanism seems to mean a blackened America, stripped of everything positive it has." At the end of its ambiguous career, américanisme has wound up denoting nothing more than a repertoire of anti-American clichés about America.
Now we can come back and respond to the initial objection about essentializing America. The mistake there was imagining that anti-Americanism was derived from the notion of "Americanism." In fact, the false antonym has nothing to do with it, either historically or logically. As Sartre could have put it, in France, anti-Americanism's existence always preceded any essence of America.
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One last scruple: our investigation covers two centuries. It might seem problematic, then, that the word anti-Americanism is so much more recent. Can we trace the genealogy of a nameless notion?
First we have to clear up the chronology. The word made a late entrance into the French dictionaries (1968 for the Petit Robert). But as we all know, dictionaries always lag behind usage. The first use of the term "anti-Americanism" catalogued by lexicographers dates back to 1948; by the early 1950s, it was a part of ordinary political language. And it would not be going out on a limb to suggest that the term spread as a counterpoint to "anti-Sovietism." Its entry into the French lexicon seems to have been a direct consequence of the cold war.
As for the epistemological root of the question, we can look to one of the pioneers of semantics applied to cultural history, Reinhart Koselleck, for help with that one. Koselleck warns against falling prey to a "new nominalism," which would have us believe that the emergence of a notion or a category of thought is dependent on the creation of the term designating it. "It is not necessary for persistence and change in the meanings of words to correspond with persistence and change in the structures they specify," writes Koselleck; "words which persist are in themselves insufficient indicators of stable contents and, … vice versa, contents undergoing long-term change might be expressed in a number of very different ways." The invitation is clear and the voice authoritative. It would be reductive to use lexicographical indications to limit the field of investigation on concepts or behaviors. There is indisputably in France, as of the late nineteenth century, an as-yet-unnamed anti-Americanism. (A name for it would probably have taken some form of "Yankism" or "Yankeeism" at the time.) The lesson we can draw from dictionaries is elsewhere: they usefully remind us that "anti-Americanism" is the only noun in French with the prefix "anti-" based on the name of a country. That this strange word finally emerged and became common coinage (and now seems to be impossible to get rid of) is in itself a sign of exceptional treatment, if not favoritism.
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A genealogy of French anti-Americanism—what exactly does that mean? First, that anti-Americanism will be considered here as a long war of words (and images) that France has been waging against the United States, and whose argumentative logic it is our task to untangle. We will therefore keep to the disagreeable side of Franco-American relations, where the punches are thrown and the low blows dealt. We will hang out dirty laundry that has never seen the end of the wash. We'll also follow the anti-American discourse into its weakest patches, where it runs in little rivulets, far from the torrential roar of invective. That is, we will track it back to the place where it flows from the source.
I open Claudel's Journal and find the following passage, written in 1933 in Washington, D.C.: "Al[exander] Hamilton in The Federalist notes that in his day they already attributed a degenerative influence to the American climate. &lsquoIn this country, even the dogs no longer bark.’" And Claudel adds, in parentheses: "Moreover, it is perfectly true." Except that it is perfectly false. First of all, American dogs do bark. Second, Hamilton does not "note"; he decries as absurd the degenerative hypothesis: "Men admired as profound philosophers have, in direct terms, attributed to [Europe's] inhabitants a physical superiority and have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America—that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed awhile in our atmosphere." It is not Hamilton speaking against the dogs, but a Dutch-born naturalist writing in French, Cornelius De Pauw, whom he footnotes. From the Enlightenment naturalist to the French poet-ambassador, despite a century and a half of proof to the contrary, as well as Hamilton's own words, the chain has held, shackling America to the legend of the mute dog. For more recent examples, we only need to open a newspaper or turn on the radio on any given day. This one was heard on a French public radio station in 2000. The day I finished this book, I found myself listening to a Toulouse bistro owner. He was strongly criticizing a new law reducing to nearly Scandinavian levels the authorized blood-alcohol content for anyone behind the wheel. Though he conceded that drinking too much pastis could be bad for you, the cafetier insisted on the well-known fact that Coca-Cola, a so-called soft drink, was in reality much harder on your stomach and more detrimental for your health than alcoholic beverages: "Try leaving a twenty-centime coin in a glass of Coke…" The legend of the dissolving coin is less antique than the tale of the mute dog; it only dates back to the Coke war of 1949—still, more than half a century. (It will probably take as long for the anecdote to switch over to the euro.) The bistro owner and the ambassador, each in his own way, forge the chain I call anti-Americanism. Whether they personally are anti-American or not is unimportant.
Anti-Americanism is not "felt," as I said before. For that reason and a few others (starting with the semantic nature of its appearance in particular historical contexts), it cannot simply be included among the "French passions" analyzed by the British historian Theodore Zeldin. It is worth stressing, apropos of passions, that French anti-Americanism, although deeply rooted, is in no way a gut reaction: there is nothing personal, so to speak, in French America-bashing; offensive anti-American clichés are usually proffered as so many innocently obvious statements and with no (personal) offense meant to any American in particular. Many Americans have had the same experience of dining with French people who, completely oblivious to their American guest, kept trashing the United States and, when reminded of the guest's nationality, hastened to add with perfect sincerity: "Oh! We didn't mean you."
However, despite its linguistic nature, anti-Americanism is not a myth, in Barthes's sense of the word, because it is not a "second language" in which the connotative meaning is insidiously "naturalized." Anti-Americanism lacks this structural sneakiness.
Is it an ideology? The sheer number of existing definitions for the word "ideology" makes that a tricky question to answer. One of the most comprehensive definitions describes ideology as "a polemical discursive formation by which a passion attempts to attain a certain value through the exercise of power in a given society." The first part of this definition fits anti-Americanism perfectly, but not the second: the link between anti-Americanism and the politics of power seems more complex than that, given that on the one hand anti-Americanism is often coupled with the most mutually ideologically hostile political discourses and, on the other, that it is often used outside of any political agenda or objective we can pinpoint.
So, what is it?
We will just say: anti-Americanism is a discourse. After all, a discourse—as its etymology indicates (dis-correre) and as the use of the word up to the Renaissance attests—is a way of "running here and there." Anti-Americanism is an unbridled discourse, not only because it is rife with irrationality and bubbling with humors, but also because it takes an essayistic form, rather than that of a dissertation or a demonstration. (It does not follow "orders" either; there is no anti-American conspiracy.) Its logic is one of accumulation, accretion—"I'll take that one" or "give me a little more of that"—in short, it is a mad dash that deliberately ignores the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction. (Anti-Americanism has never been ashamed to utter two mutually exclusive grievances at the same time.) But even with all its leaps and bounds, it is never "gratuitous," and still less absurd. Only the complexity of its crisscrossing strategies gives it the false appearance of a bunch of individual whims. The whims are there, make no doubt about it; they flesh out the words and bulk up the sentences. But the anti-American discourse grounds them.
The word "discourse" brings Foucault's name into the picture. This would be the early or the late Foucault, as opposed to the 1970s Foucault, who spoke of discourse as emanating from certain practices, or as a way of relaying domination. The anti-American discourse is en situation, but it remains autonomous and "acratic"—as Barthes said of discourses with no link to power. This does not, however, mean it is placeless or detached: the intelligentsia massively produces it; it is their emanation.
Which also indicates all that this book is not.
Though the United States is omnipresent here, this is not a book about the United States. Or a polemic history of Franco-American relations seen through mud-colored glasses. Or an ethnological exploration of the intercultural misunderstandings "of daily life." It is not (only) a thematic catalogue of the anti-American motifs circulating in contemporary France, either. Or a list of the "crossed images" the two countries send back and forth to each other and which would need to be inventoried to give a "balanced" assessment. French anti-Americanism has mostly been approached up to now as one of the aspects of an ambivalent, ambiguous, contradictory relationship—a flip side of the coin that is nonetheless recognized as the much more visible side. Our approach will be fundamentally different. Far from purporting to attain an impossible exhaustiveness or an illusory weighing of the "pros" and "cons," we will look at anti-Americanism as a historical stratification that it is possible and even preferable to isolate in order to analyze it. In the following pages, positive representations of America, those (brief) moments of shared euphoria between the French and the Americans, will only come into the picture insofar as they elucidate a given inflection or strain of the anti-American discourse. Many kinder, gentler readers of America will thus be relegated to the sidelines of our investigation or treated obliquely (for the distortions they were subject to, or for the anti-American counterattacks they provoked). Their discreet presence indicates a fundamental choice of approach, not a sneaky attempt to muffle the voice of French Americanophiles.
The following chapters aim to be the genealogy of this anti-Americanism understood as a "discourse"—a genealogy in which history and semiology will have to silence their vain quarrels: history by accepting that a false "narrative" can be a true fact; semiology by taking on the impurity Barthes incited it to accept in Lesson—in finally becoming "a work that collects language's impurities, linguistics' refuse, the message's immediate corruption: nothing less than desires, fears, scowls, intimidations."
After over twenty months of French-American diplomatic tensions and inflammatory mutual accusations, a last caveat may be in order: this book owes nothing to a crisis it deliberately leaves out, but can perhaps shed light on—from the past.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in New York City working on one of the last chapters of this book when I saw the first of the hijacked planes fly vertically over my building on Third Street. Less than a minute later, it crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. That the chapter I was writing was "Metropolis, Cosmopolis," which deals with French hatred of the American city, struck me afterward as a tragic irony.
A witness to the catastrophe and a longtime resident of New York (where I had spent seven years of my life), I had a hard time relating to the very "distant" French perception of the event, when I got home a month later, and I was especially struck by the general eagerness to relativiser what seemed to me anything but relative and to see as unreal ("It was like a movie…") what had been a shocking reality.
My memory of that morning is not so much visual as auditory: the unbelievable sound that, twice, as each tower crumbled, rose up from the city—a kind of gigantic bellow, the cry simultaneously leaping from 500,000 mouths (or a million, or more), a roar rising from the streets, squares, balconies, and roofs, the antique, formidable planctus of an entire city engulfed in horror. The images repeated ad nauseam of the towers falling can lose all meaning—if they ever had one. This inconceivable cry, so different from the din of the stadium or the clamor of a riot, will always—for me—cover over the clatter of "intelligent" commentaries.
French anti-Americanism has of course no direct connection with the aggression committed that day. But in all fairness, those who have been urging the Americans, since 9/11, to "get the message," "learn from the lesson," and, finally, take responsibility for the wound inflicted upon them would be better off doing their own homework and asking themselves to what extent systematic anti-Americanism, French and otherwise, has had a hand in the global process of demonization that facilitates slippage from a war of words to a war of the worlds.