Who’s best?

Douglas Johnson

During the academic year 1982-83 Alain Besançon, a French specialist on Soviet affairs, became a visiting professor at the Hoover Institute in Stanford. He arranged with his Parisian colleague, Jean Plumyene, that they would write regularly to each other and that their correspondence would be published. The interest of this exchange of letters between French academics, the one in California and the other in Paris, lies in Besançon’s reactions to America. At first he finds it unreal. He feels as if he is enclosed in a bluebird paradise under a protective film of celluloid. It is an effort for him to enquire about what is happening in Paris. But he is disconcerted by what he experiences. No one in Stanford has the slightest interest in France, or in Europe. He watches old American films on television and reflects that nothing has changed since they were made. He has unfortunate experiences with young Americans who are not slow to abandon their initial good manners, who become aggressive in a way which he thinks of as adolescent, and display tastes that he deplores, for women’s lib or biogymnastics.

With a little bit of time these impressions change. In the campus bookshop he finds editions of Duns Scotus and Saint Thomas Aquinas (who, he says, have never been translated into French); in the library there are yards of shelving devoted to French literature. He likens America to 19th-century Britain in being at the same time innovatory and conservative. His Paris correspondent gives him news (which he does not find exhilarating) of the progress of the French Socialist (or ‘socialo-communist’) Government and he realises how well Americans, and especially Reagan, have understood socialism. At a public meeting he is attacked for his right-wing views by an obnoxious young man who turns out to be French. Perhaps there is a lot to be said in favour of America after all.

Does this correspondence mark a moment of significant change in the history of that anti-Americanism so often said to be traditional in France? The Rise and Fall of Anti-Americanism prints the proceedings of a symposium devoted to this question (the original French edition first appeared in 1986). Before 1939, America was a far-away country about which France needed to know nothing, but after 1945 there was a widespread detestation of the Americans. The first manifestation of French political opinion that most English visitors encountered when they went to France was what they read oh the walls: ‘US Go Home!’ The French remembered with bitterness the high-altitude bombing of their cities by the American Air Force; and although many of the details had not been revealed, it was widely known that Roosevelt had been a friend to Vichy and an enemy to de Gaulle, that he had hoped to establish some sort of American provisional government in France, which would issue its own currency. He had treated France not as an ally but as a vassal. The American commander responsible for the Paris region had even tried to stop the victory parade down the Champs Elysées on 26 August 1944. De Gaulle, in his memoirs, says of this general’s order: ‘Naturally, I paid no attention.’

With the Cold War, French anti-Americanism, as Michel Winock puts it, grew immeasurably. Intellectuals claimed that, faced with a choice between the USA and the USSR, they would have to choose the Russians, because it was with them that the future lay. A powerful Communist Party alleged that the Marshall Plan was an attempt by American capital to take over France. The installation of American bases throughout Europe was proof of their war-mongering expansionism. One did not have to be an admirer of the Soviet Union to be suspicious of American power and to believe that the State Department was ready to treat France as it had treated the republics of Latin America. Then there were the scandals in America: the execution of the Rosenbergs; McCarthyism; countless examples of racial intolerance which caused French intellectuals to organise protest meetings on behalf of the blacks (at a time when they showed no interest at all in what was happening in South Africa).

According to this volume, such anti-Americanism was confined to distinct political groups and to an intellectual élite which despised the mass culture that threatened its own dominance. But there was a popular anti-Americanism too. Legends abounded of how Americans were protecting German war criminals and were pouring money into Germany. In Paris a story went the rounds of how a group of wealthy Americans went to a famous restaurant and ordered a magnificent meal. Asked what wine they had chosen, they said they wanted Coca-Cola, whereupon the proprietor ordered them to leave. In those days, one of the Paris telephone exchanges was named after Trudaine, the founder of the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées. One dialled TRU, and if one wanted to annoy a friend whose phone was on this particular exchange, one referred to it as ‘Truman’. In Jacques Tati’s film, Jour de Fête, the technological speed and efficiency with which Americans delivered the mail is contrasted with the more homely methods of French postmen. At one point a postman cycles past at great speed, pretending to use a telephone fixed to his handlebars. Two American soldiers are so amazed by this invention that they cannot take their eyes off it and drive their jeep into the ditch. One up for la France profonde.

On the other hand, many people in France were genuinely frightened of the Red Army and felt the need for the presence of the American Army. Anti-Communism often outweighed all other considerations. And anti-Americanism often shaded into a general hostility towards the Anglo-Saxons. In the immediate post-war years François Mauriac, for example, chose to indulge in a little Anglophobia, recalling the burning at the stake of Joan of Arc, Saint Helena, the dum-dum bullet used against the Boers, and alleging British responsibility for both world wars. There were professors of American literature in French universities (at a time when they did not exist in places like Oxford) and a cult of American novelists and poets. Anglo-Saxon readers of Cahiers du Cinéma were astonished to learn that Hollywood films which they had taken to be simple entertainment were, in fact, of profound intellectual significance. However much left-wing publications objected to France being invaded by low-grade mass culture, the French public was surrounded by the sounds and images of America and seemed to enjoy them.

Despite the many ambivalences in the relationship, resentment of the United States remained a constant factor throughout the Sixties and most of the Seventies. There were the intrigues against the Mendès-France government which ended the war in Indochina and scuppered the European Defence Community (curiously unmentioned in this book). There was Suez. And then de Gaulle: ‘When all is said and done,’ he once remarked, ‘England is an island; France the cape of a continent; America another world’. Convinced that international Communism was dead, that America was overstretched and that a strong France allied with Germany would dominate Western Europe, he could afford to be cynically aloof towards the White House and its British ally. Soon America was to be saddled with its unsuccessful war in Vietnam and its interventionist policies in the Middle East. It has been said that two tragic figures symbolised America in these years, one representing the counter-culture, the other the conventional culture: Charles Manson and Lieutenant Calley.

In his memoirs published in 1974, the former foreign minister, Michel Jobert (sometimes known as Jobert of Arabia), claimed that he did not necessarily believe that there had been a machiavellian American plot to encourage Israeli-Arab hostilities in order to maintain Europe in a state of subservience, but he seems to have considered the idea of such a plot with some seriousness. Other observers reacted differently. There was a fear that America would lose interest in Europe. There were French officers who regretted that they were no longer in Nato because they risked getting out of touch with important technical developments in weaponry. The growth of multi-national firms enjoined world-wide cooperation. The Harvard Business School had many admirers. French tourists discovered California. American youth had much to offer a French youth that was becoming bored and dispirited. Against all this, a France which claimed to dominate Western Europe had no need to feel inferior vis-à-vis the United States. The giant had been reduced to size.

The argument in this book, at its clearest in Diana Pinto’s piece, is that there was a swing of the pendulum beginning in the late Seventies. America became a model for the French. It was dynamic, it was democratic, it was respectable. The old French idea that the state was all-important was replaced by a craving for liberalism and pluralism. The Socialist Government ceased to talk about equality and made modernisation its fetish. President Mitterrand visited Silicon Valley and Laurent Fabius called for computer classes in every French school. It is argued here that in terms of the power and independence of the media, of the power of the judiciary as a check on the executive, and of the organisation of higher education, France has moved and is moving closer to its idealised image of the United States. Ecologists have discovered that their science was born in the Far West. It must be time to bring Giraudoux’s Amica America back into print.

The current crisis in the Gull has been revealing, however. It was not so much the hesitancy with which the French Government associated itself with other countries in opposing Iraq, or the rumours of a pro-Iraq lobby in the Quai d’Orsay and the Ministry of Defence: President Mitterrand is always cautious; French diplomacy always seeks to appear independent. What was important was the realisation that the United States was the only power capable of mounting a military operation on the scale of Desert Shield. The US is once again the universal gendarme. But this time the gendarme requires to be paid. And the question is being asked in France: what is the ultimate aim of all this? It is not only the Communists who wonder whether France should allow itself to be led into a large-scale conflict. During the Cold War the phrase mourir pour le Coca-Cola became a powerful anti-American slogan. Now there are those who are asking whether they should mourir pour le pétrole.

Last month the Communist periodical Révolution published an article on ‘Le Déclin Américain’. It will not have had a wide readership. But it is a sorry tale of violence, corruption, drugs, racism, poverty and collapse. Is America still a model? More recently, reviewing American films at the Deauville festival, a French critic, under the heading ‘Rose Bonbon’, mocked les délices des happy ends. And even when he was admiring America Alain Besançon regretted that conversation there was not on the same high level as it is in Paris.

In international affairs the French remain attached to the principle of national independence; in cultural affairs they remain convinced of their superiority. They expect other nations to take account of this. That is their weakness; and their strength.