Bringing Out the Animal In Us: A Frenchman’s Journey in Francophobe America

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

March 15, 2003

A few weeks ago in Baltimore a woman heard me speaking French with my wife, and, after hesitating for a while, she approached us. “I want to thank you very warmly for the position that your government is taking on the question of war with Iraq,” she said. “This is important, and I am so grateful to you.”

I understood that she intended a compliment. But at the moment, I’m a bit wary about being defined by my nationality. There are shock-jocks near Atlanta offering people the chance to smash a Peugeot for $10, just out of anger at France; there is a bar owner in Florida pouring French wine onto the street; and French-bashing jokes are being passed around the Internet like, well, a French whore. And now I’m being thanked for being French.

But, couldn’t I be both French and pro-war? Or more to the point, couldn’t I simply hold a more nuanced position, estimating that the costs of a war probably outweigh the benefits, while also believing that French President Jacques Chirac’s hardball diplomacy is as harmful as George W. Bush’s?

It seems there is not much room left for such subtleties these days in Washington. “Either you’re with us or you’re against us.” Bush’s black-and-white view of the war on terrorism seems to apply to national identity, too. Either you’re French or you’re Churchillian. Either you’re American or you’re an appeaser. Such stereotyping has made it difficult to hold serious transatlantic discussions about Iraq. Even the moderate and generally perceptive columnist, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, while acknowledging that there are good arguments to be made against the war, writes that he doesn’t buy these very same arguments when they come from France or Germany. When voiced by these countries, he says, these arguments stem from “expedience,” “weakness” or “identity crisis,” not from real belief.

Back in Paris last year, and the years before that, I used to begin my classes on American Foreign policy and on U.S.-French relations by examining clichés, stereotypes and even conspiracy theories about the U.S. We all know them: America is a society of cynical plutocrats, bigoted rednecks, obese SUV drivers and trigger-happy cowboys who view the world in black and white and couldn’t care less if the rest of us object to their grabbing Iraqi oil.

My students had learned to question what mainstream newspapers and governments tell them. But many of them still needed to learn not to be too clever by half. The opposite of anti-Americanism is not philo-Americanism, I explained to them. Rather, it is knowledge, complexity, nuance, distance.

Last spring, I began to study the mirror image of French anti-Americanism: francophobia, or France-bashing, here in the US. American francophobia has a long history, although certainly not as glorious and diverse as French anti-Americanism, and not as defining of identity as British francophobia. In unfriendly American eyes, France is a cowardly and effete nation that never met a dictator it couldn’t appease. It is immoral, venal, anti-Semitic, arrogant, insignificant, and nostalgic for past glory. It is also elitist, dirty, lazy, and it is anti-American. Sure, anti-Americanism and francophobia can be gut feelings. But most of the time, the objective is simply to undermine your opponent’s image and credibility, rather than to engage in genuine debate. When you’re a “cheese-eating surrender monkey” or a “simplistic cowboy,” nobody needs to care about the validity of your arguments.

Last year now seems like the good old days when I could study these clichés from an academic distance. When I arrived in Washington last autumn, in the midst of the negotiations of what would become UN resolution 1441, France-bashing was on the rise again. Columnist George Will was putting worn-out clichés to work once more, reminding readers that France’s “great-power pretenses have been increasingly unconvincing since the Franco-Prussian war,” and that “the French rooster crows during Europe’s dusk.”

But that was the gentle stuff—there was much more to come. The climate began to deteriorate further after January 20, when Chirac made it clear he saw no reason for war at this point. U.S. conservatives and neo-conservatives switched to full campaign mode in favor of an early military intervention, with France as an obstacle to overcome. Some media outlets—particularly, but not only, those belonging to Rupert Murdoch, from the low-brow Fox News network to the more intellectual Weekly Standard magazine—attacked France with renewed vigor.

At first, I enjoyed this new wave of clichés, which represented a windfall for an academic study of American francophobia in real time. I also found many of the cartoons, late-night comedians and Internet jokes to be quite funny (“Going to war without France is like going hunting without an accordion.”) Then I began to wonder if this current France-bashing fever was not surpassing previous ones—that of Spring 2002, caused by concern over anti-Semitic acts in France, and certainly those of 1995, when Paris expelled CIA spies, and 1986, when France denied overflight rights to American bombers for a military operation against Libya. Finally, even while being happy as an academic for this francophobe creativity, I began to be alarmed by the virulence of its promoters.

But a more personal irritation came from two front-page spreads in the New York Post, another Murdoch outlet. The first showed a military cemetery in Normandy, and blared in oversize print: “They died for France but France has forgotten.” Beyond the obvious historical simplification, two false premises shocked me: the idea that France was ungrateful, and the assumption that French gratitude was owed to a specific Bush administration policy rather than to the American heroes of an earlier era.

Indeed, this latter assumption seemed to trivialise the sacrifices of America’s greatest generation by reducing them to a cynical bid to secure unquestioning obedience and acquiescence to all American policies. Like every Frenchman, I am certainly grateful to America for the liberation of France. I am certainly grateful that General Patton and the U.S. Third Army (and not the Russians) liberated my grandfather, a Resistance fighter working for British Intelligence, from the Nazi Death Camp at Buchenwald. But do I ask Americans to support Chirac’s policy in Africa to thank France for its help during the American Revolution?

Tucker Carlson, the provocative anchor of CNN’s Crossfire presented the second New York Post cover to me when I was invited on the show to talk about French?US relations. He had warned me that he would be asking nasty questions during the show but that “deep down, [he] loved France.” True to his promise, he began the interview by declaring “I don’t know how long you’ve been in the land of the free, the home of the brave—probably long enough to know what people are saying about your homeland.” Then he showed a doctored front page photo of the Post in which the heads of the French and German representatives to the UN were replaced by weasel faces.

I began to realise that this wave of francophobia had surpassed recent expressions of French anti-Americanism. Or rather, that it was different. Condescending stereotypes and misrepresentations certainly abound in Paris. But I have never been able to find the front page of a French newspaper with an American official pictured as an animal—or even the equivalent of Christopher Hitchens’ comparison in the mainstream print press of Chirac with “a rat.” No political correctness stands in the way of France-bashing; you wouldn’t see the New York Post replace the face of an African, an Israeli or a Mexican official with an animal face. Although extreme anti-Americanism does occasionally achieve a degree of popularity in France, it is always followed by a strong backlash from the mainstream media. Thus, Thierry Meyssan’s popular conspiracy theory asserting the American government’s complicity in the September 11 attacks provoked a unanimous and heart-felt condemnation from across the French political spectrum.

Recent events have thus forced me to reconsider my long-held assumption about anti-Americanism being influential in France and anti-Europeanism, particularly francophobia, being low-key in the U.S. In normal times, people here certainly care less about Europe than Europeans do about the U.S. America as a cultural and economic phenomenon permeates European life and European media in a way that European culture certainly does not in Middle America. Rather than a reaction to an overbearing presence, recent France-bashing in the U.S. has apparently grown out of anger, rooted in a deeply-held patriotism, at France for challenging the U.S and doing so with some success. “Iraq now, France next” reads a new bumper sticker. And where in Europe would a news presenter welcome you by describing his country as “the land of the free, the home of the brave?” The distinct roots of American francophobia partly explain its more virulent outcome—such as Peugeot-smashing, tabloid attacks and boycott threats.

This observation saddened me. I already knew it was part of my transatlantic identity to defend America in Paris and Europe here, and never to feel politically at home in either place. But suddenly this wave of clichés and reduction to nationality seemed overwhelming. There was not much I could do if people wanted to see Frenchmen only as appeasers or as peace heroes. Objectivity and nuance seemed lost. This saddened me not really as a French citizen, but rather as a someone who loves America.