Spot the Difference
France quarrels with America because they are so alike
[Based on an article from: The Economist]
In a valley near Aix-en-Provence, Plan de Campagne is a familiar French landscape. A strip of garish advertising reaches into the distance. Two McDonald's fast-food joints rival Buffalo Grill, where poulet Kentucky is served under a roof topped with giant white buffalo horns. All this is ringed by vast parking lots, crammed with gas-guzzling 4X4s. Welcome to France, cradle of anti-Americanism.
Beyond the tourist trail, France is changing. Slowly, its way of life is beginning to resemble that of the country it loves to hate. Over four-fifths of the French now live in towns or suburbs-more than in America. Less than 4% of the French workforce is in farming. French intellectuals and editorialists may still philosophise in smoke-filled cafés, but their countrymen devour American brands. American culinary sins-fast food, TV-dinners-are on the rise in the land of gastronomy, and with them child obesity. Yet the more that ordinary French people embrace such American ways, the more the elite seems fixated with an anti-Americanism that runs far deeper than just differences over Iraq. What is it about the French and America?
Philippe Roger, the author of "L'Ennemi Américain", detects an undercurrent of anti-Americanism going back to the 18th century. It reappeared, often as cultural snobbery, in the 19th century, and hardened into contempt in the 20th, most virulently among communists, as American industrial might grew. Many publications during the 1920s and 1930s railed against the inhumanity of American life. "Out with the Yankees and their products, their dances and their jazz! Let them take back their Fords and their chewing gum." wrote one pamphleteer. The sentiment has found an echo, especially in France's national newspapers, ever since. The durability of anti-Americanism prompted Jack Straw, Britain's foreign minister, to call it an ancient French "neurosis".
Scratch the surface of the denunciations from on high, however, and French anti-Americanism is not quite what it seems. First, because it is an elite doctrine that is often not shared by ordinary people. Second, because it is used by the political class more as a scapegoat for its own troubles than as a reasoned response to real threats. And, third, because it implies that the French clash with America out of antipathy. The real reason is rivalry, tinged with jealousy.
Thomas Frank, the author of "What's the matter with Kansas?", wrote that "American intellectuals… believe that countries such as France resist Hollywood films because they are snobs, dedicated to bringing 'culture'-in the form of arty, disjointed films-to the masses." Certainly, French intellectuals cherish low-plot, high-art films, and the French Ministry of Culture leads a guerrilla war to defend such works from a vulgar American invasion. But what do French people actually watch?
In the first 11 months of 2005, the top film was "Star Wars 3". The all-time top box-office film in France is "Titanic". On the small screen, French versions of American reality television and talk-shows clog up the schedules. French teenagers download American rap to their iPods. In 2004, the person most searched for on Google France was Britney Spears.
Of course, a taste for American brands or popular culture does not necessarily mean a taste for America, its citizens or leaders. Consumption patterns are no guide to affinity, argues Mr Roger: American brands are popular in the Arab world, after all. Yet even the evidence for popular anti-Americanism is ambivalent.
For sure, 85% of the French disapprove of George Bush's international policies, according to the latest survey, compared with 72% of all Europeans and 62% of the British. Mr Bush's French supporters are a silent minority: just 11% would have voted for him, said one poll before the 2004 presidential election. Yet the French do not seem to generalise this dislike. In one 2004 poll, 72% of the French had a favourable view of Americans, more even than in Britain (62%).
Even the elite has not always stirred up anti-Americanism. Franklin was adored in the salons of Paris and Jefferson was invited to sit in the National Assembly during the writing of the French constitution. What prompted all this to change into 20th-and 21st-century anti-Americanism? Explanations include a clash of commercial interests and a French sense of insecurity. Anti-Americanism intensifies at times of French uncertainty.
Today's concern about decline is another such moment. In familiar fashion, the French political class is proclaiming the need to build up Europe to counterbalance the United States. Despite a recent thaw in Franco-American relations, President Chirac continues to call for a "multi-polar world". On the left, the Socialist Party campaigned for the European constitution with the slogan "Strong in the face of the United States".
America is one of the few western countries with which France has never been to war. Moreover, the country that supposedly scorns American capitalism has produced global companies that fit tyres on American cars (Michelin) and put the gloss on American lips (L'Oréal). In many ways, France and America clash so often not because they are so irreconcilably different, but because they are so alike.
Both - unlike the English - can articulate unapologetically what their country stands for. Born of revolutions, America and France each established republics inspired by Enlightenment thinking, and based on freedom and individual rights. Within the same year, 1789, both the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Bill of Rights were drafted.
Above all, each nation believed in the universalism of its model-the Americans stressing liberty, the French civilisation-and shared an ambition to spread it abroad. The conviction among the French elite that France represents an alternative to the American way runs deep. It forms part of the national mythology that has helped to maintain French pride. And it explains why the French so readily pick on America at times of self-doubt.
Questions [In the exam these will follow the multiple choice questions, not replace them!]
- Summarise in 3 or 4 sentences what the main arguments of the author are, in the text as a whole. Your answer should be about 2-4 sentences and (15 points)
- Summarise in a single sentence the main point of paragraph 8, (lines 44-49). (5 points)
- How do French attitudes to the Americans compare with those of past times? (15 points)
- Explain what you think the writer means by universalism in this context. (5 points)