Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanisation 
by Richard Kuisel.
California, 309 pp., £20, April 1993, 0 520 07962 0
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Good Americans go to Paris when they die, but good Americans have always been few in number, so for a long time their impact on France was slight even when they were dead. ‘Who reads an American book, or goes to an American play, or looks at an American picture ...?’ asked Baudelaire, perhaps echoing Tocqueville, with his premonition that the wonders and vulgarities of democracy in America were what awaited Europe. Tocqueville’s observations were to be quoted, misquoted, reiterated and rehashed in France for a century and a half. But the vulgarities caught the attention more than the wonders, and attracted especially the notice of those who, like most French until recently, preferred to take their exoticism at a distance. For Stendhal, American life was a bore without even opera to relieve it, and all passions there came down to dollars in the end. For Baudelaire, long before Henry Miller’s air-conditioned nightmare, the United States were a gaslit wasteland. The universal exhibitions held in Paris, with their monstrous displays of American machines and technological knowhow, added to the portentous image. Civilisation was clearly in peril and ‘Americanisation’ became a verb before it had time to become a reality. Pierre Larousse defined américanisme, Edmond de Goncourt deplored the Americanisation of France. Before typewriters, telephones and tin lizzies, mankind (meaning the French) was sliding down the honeyed slopes of philistinism and technical materialism. Before the 19th century ended, a professor of commercial studies was casting his stone at Le Péril américain.

Such prescience remained rare, however, until the First World War turned a broadly benevolent indifference into interest and self-interest, then into irritation, and finally into apprehension that The American Cancer (a title of 1931) threatened the French way of life. The war had bled France white, economic crisis had destabilised it further. The French began to question themselves, their status as a power, their national security and national values. Stereotypes coined in the 19th century were dusted off and brought up to date.

American ‘machinism’ symbolised other equally dire threats: mass culture, conformism and coarse commercialism. The next war – no victory this time, only Liberation – further rattled national confidence. Worse, the liberators appeared more intrusive, less tolerable and, often, less ‘correct’ than the invaders. The French, Janet Flanner wrote in the New Yorker, were tired of being occupied; which is where Kuisel’s story begins. Americans were resented more widely and openly than they had ever been; so was the creeping reality of Americanisation. But since the French projected onto America their fears as much as their hopes for France, investigating their attitudes to America illuminates how they felt about themselves, their identity and the modernisation of their country.

Kuisel’s book provides a guided tour of the fatuities and banalities that many intelligent and not-so-intelligent people rehearsed over half a century; but he also considers their motives, their wounded sensibilities, injured national pride and threatened interests. He notes, but gives less thought to, American tactlessness, self-interest, good intentions, rustic obtrusiveness and artless arrogance. He evokes a polemic in which pompousness and sanctimoniousness prevail, and commonsense makes few appearances. In the end (but is there an end?) Kuisel concludes that, having run out of differences, the contenders have simmered down.

He makes clear that the opinions he presents were those of minorities: the Communist Party and its propaganda machine, leftist or Christian literati, trade unionists attempting to preserve employment or work habits, industrialists torn between tradition and profit, politicians courting aid and investment while grudging their effects. Those who had no parti pris remained indifferent or friendly. When Cold War denunciation of bellicose Amerloques was at its worst, three-quarters of the French surveyed expressed positive views about them.

As Kuisel points out, the French stereotype of American grands enfants – rich, young, dynamic, practical, generous, modern – was the obverse of how, in their more self-critical moments, they saw themselves: poor, elderly, weary, inefficient, grasping and traditional. There was truth in both images, as there was in the exasperated feeling that American anti-colonialism was merely a self-serving aspect of imperialism; or in the suspicion that economic, technological and managerial aid advanced the interests of American trade, and might not have been offered had it not been for fear of Communism. When Jacques Soustelle complained that France was caught between two colossi, one of which had no heart and the other no head, it is not clear which of the two represented the United States – until one recalls how clumsy and aggressive Washington looked in the days of Senator McCarthy and of Dr Strangelove.

The French Communist Party may have provided the mass base of militant anti-Americanism but, as Kuisel notes, Communist propaganda only amplified what others thought. The great ‘Coke war’ of the Fifties makes this clear, when a mighty campaign was launched to ban the soft drink and defend that quintessentially French boisson hygiénique, wine. Communists, vintners, tapsters and other champions of public hygiene invoked national identity and traditional protectionism. But the issue, as Le Monde made clear, was American commercial and cultural invasion. Dismissible as a storm in a Coke bottle, the fact remains that even today the French drink less of the stuff than other Europeans.

More generally, the French had grown so used to uncivil relations that a society whose members claimed to be cheerful and to get on with each other struck them as displaying mauvaise-foi. Americans of those days were not sophisticated enough for serious hypocrisy; their foi was that of Andy Hardy. They were optimists because they were more comfortable and more prosperous. The everlastingly silly Louis Aragon dismissed the States as ‘a civilisation of bathtubs and Frigidaires’. Yet in 1951, when his words were spoken, our Paris flat, like many others, had neither; nor an indoor convenience. Americanisation was about getting them or, rather, about forging the conditions in which they became accessible.

The position of French industry after the war was not far from that now associated with underdeveloped countries: capital equipment was inferior; investment grudging; merchandising frail; output, deliveries and service unreliable; labour relations feudal and adversarial; the managerial mind-set Malthusian. Half the country’s population remained outside the economic circuit: they produced, but could not afford to buy consumer durables. Prices were too high, wages too low, credit was not to be had. In the Fifties, a Studebaker cost a Detroit car worker nine months’ wages, while a Paris one would have to work two and a half years for a Citroën 2CV. The Marshall Plan and the Economic Co-operation Administration that managed it were intended to change that, to achieve which they had to raise not just production but productivity.

The French now learnt about market research, their attention shifted from production to sales, advertising persuaded more people to buy – even to buy what they didn’t want with money they didn’t have. Management practices were overhauled, labour relations improved, productivity rose and so, miraculously, did wages. After 1951 incomes rose faster than the cost of living and modest and not so modest earners went on a buying spree. Between 1951 and 1958 expenditure on domestic appliances rose at an annual rate of 15 per cent, the stock of home appliances grew 400 per cent, the number of privately owned cars more than doubled, the number of television sets soared from 24,000 to nearly one million. What the Fourth Republic sowed the Fifth Republic reaped. Under de Gaulle and Pompidou economic growth surged further, per capita income rose 80 per cent. In 1960, a quarter of French households had refrigerators and washing machines, one third a car. By 1975, nine-tenths had refrigerators, three-quarters washing machines, two-thirds a car. By the Seventies, they were taking the banality of comfort in their stride. Yet the enjoyment was strangely muted. The French of the Fifties and the Sixties were reluctant to draw attention to prosperities that risked arousing the envy of their neighbours and the attentions of the tax collector. But they were also slow in admitting to themselves that they were better off. A poll of 1956 shows one in ten respondents thinking that their living standards were stagnant or had declined. As late as 1969, only 5 per cent believed standards of living had improved under de Gaulle, 49 per cent saw them as in decline. Did that reflect the discomforts that change brings in its wake, or the barrage of criticism evoked by a modernisation identified as Americanisation?

American democracy may dismiss intellectuals as eggheads; French cultural arrogance procures them a just reward. Like their predecessors of the Thirties, condescending critics in France set out to unveil the dark realities of the consumer paradise, and this time American sociologists helped flesh out the list: joyless materialism, lonely crowds, complacent consumerism, an anthill culture and the homogenised food of the meatloaf era, meant to be gulped not tasted. Americans were alienated, American culture was inauthentic: too many paperbacks, too little creativity. La Belle américaine was just another car, the quiet American an agent of the CIA. France stood for artisans, bistros and flânerie, for spontaneity, free thought and a frugal humanism. Between the two the choice should have been easy.

It was. By the mid-Eighties, Kuisel tells us, ‘the French had been seduced.’ Or sunk in the same slough as Americans. Euro-Disneyland, in which the seduction allegedly culminates, was denounced as a 51st American state near Paris. By 1994 it was as broke as the other fifty. Kuisel, who could not know of Euro-Disney’s future straits, ends its story on an up-beat note, with thousands thronging towards Marne-la-Vallée regardless of the threat it represented. Is their identity so fragile that it must recoil in terror at the sight of Mickey Mouse? Kuisel is a bit premature in more ways than one. Anti-Americanism still wears well in a country whose Minister of Culture, Jacques Toubon, rejects ‘the culture of Coca-Cola-MacDonald’s-Walt Disney’ as furiously as media and politicians denounce the incursions of Hollywood films and television series.

The fact is that the children of Pompidou and Pepsi were no more contented than those of Marx and Coke. They enjoyed a disenchantment with abundance or, at least, with the addictions of consumerism. De Gaulle, the gravelly pessimist, had warned about affluence: ‘everyone chafes at what he lacks more than he appreciates what he’s got.’ But was he describing the penalties of plenty, or French national character, or inclinations to be found in all times and places? Although it seems to escape Kuisel’s attention, the Japanese have recently been envied, denounced and cited as role models, much as Americans used to be and for much the same reasons: they do better, we do worse.

The ‘we’ is significant. Material and moral conditions in France and in America now converge depressingly. In both incapable politicians grapple with intractable problems: budgets that won’t balance, unemployment that won’t ebb, immigration that won’t be staunched, identities that refuse assimilation, racism that won’t go away, cultures of violence, irresponsibility and drugs. French society remains resolutely adversarial, American society becomes more so all the time. French bottled waters invade America, American denims (originally from Nîmes) reconquer the land from which they emigrated, Perrier and political correctness abound in both countries and both enjoy them glumly. French civilisation once meant a humanistic education, good taste, douceur de vivre. Americanism meant productivity, service, naive good humour, high standards of living, easy confidence. Little of either is left to characterise the once opposing camps and, as both countries become less civil, the notion of civilisation itself is cast in doubt. Americans, on the other hand, liked to indict French inefficiency. Michel Crozier, the French sociologist, once retorted that they would do well to leave more room for it. Today, there’s inefficiency enough to float both countries, perhaps to sink them too.

France and the United States were the eldest daughters of the Enlightenment, with its revelations based on materialism, its affirmations based on sentimentalism, its evaluations based on worldly efficacy. Material criteria applied to both societies, and now seem to condemn both. Gazing on Los Angeles’s teeming freeways in 1960, President de Gaulle commented that all this would end badly. Pessimists often turn out to be right. But what if de Gaulle was right for more than just California?

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Vol. 16 No. 8 · 28 April 1994

What Toqueville said I don’t know, but the question ‘who reads an American book?’ (LRB, 10 March) is usually attributed to the Rev. Sidney Smith, ‘ce prêtre bouffon’ as the French Queen called him.

Kiffin Rockwell
Marion, North Carolina

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