American Francophobia Takes a New Turn

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

June 1, 2003

Note: A final version of this article will replace this draft in late August 2003.

At the dawn of the 21st century, something new may be happening in the heartland of America: the spread of a negative image of France. Traditionally, a mostly positive image of France linked to its reputation for good food, high fashion, and sophisticated tourism, coexisted with a somewhat negative image in some elite circles. But the most important factor was definitely a lack of knowledge and the fact that above all, indifference reigned supreme. (See Body-Gendrot in this issue.)

“Francophobia” (not a very satisfactory term) does not constitute rational criticism of France. It expresses a systematic bias against this country, the way anti-Americanism does against the United States. It is based on a set of stereotypes, prejudices, insults, and ready-made judgments. Moreover, like anti- Americanism it deliberately conflates what a country is and what it does. Negative stereotypes about personal characteristics of the French, (for example, they are lazy, immoral, or arrogant) are combined with stereotypes about French society (elitist, unwilling to modernize, or anti-American) and stereotypes about French foreign policy (allegedly based on purely commercial interests or nostalgia for past glory) to produce a complete, if sometimes self-contradictory, discourse of disparagement, what Jean-Philippe Mathy calls in this issue a “system of Francophobia,” a web of loosely related clichés that can be mobilized at will—especially, of course, when a diplomatic crisis erupts. This article will offer a brief overview of Francophobia, describing its content and its political base. It will also assess the changes that occurred in 2002-2003, and attempt to establish how new and how important the most recent developments are.

It is difficult to know whether this new mass version of “Francophobia” will prove as long lasting and widespread as is feared. But there is no doubt that in 2003 France joined the ranks of countries subjected to a campaign of widespread bashing from the American population—Japan in the 1980s being the most recent example. While much of the negative recent stereotyping is familiar to students of anti-French sentiment in the US, the replacement of Honda-smashing by Peugeot-smashing in some popular rallies, that is, its diffusion into the wider population, as well as the striking political polarization of Francophobia around conservative patriotic circles, are new characteristics.