France and anti-Americanism

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Anyone from the US living in France will have encountered anti-Americanism. Of course, it's not peculiar to France but it runs deep here, and cuts across politics and social standing.


What irks most, I believe, is that the misunderstanding, not to mention ignorance, behind it clouds the things most Americans are very proud of, and which have nothing to do with smart bombs, fast food or Friends.

I was sitting at a table for an after-dinner chat with a group of French friends recently. Louis (I've changed his name) is a truly nice man, and a clever one. He's got a hobby in military history, something I know little about. We got on to the subject of World War II, the butchery of the Eastern Front and eventually ended up in Normandy, with an unfortunate and provocative remark.

His point was that, at a certain time, the Russians suffered more losses in one day than the US did in its entire D-Day campaign. He might be right; but his observation was not an introduction to the horrors of war, it was to belittle the sacrifice of American lives in WWII.

Louis then, before a captive audience, ripped into what he perceived as a Hollywood-created 'myth' of Normandy, from films like The Longest Day through to Saving Private Ryan. There was more: "in Normandy, the Americans have built a vast cemetery, at Colleville, but there are men buried there who fought in completely different parts of Europe!" The inference was that somehow Colleville was a propoganda exercise.

I'll come back to Colleville in a moment, but this shameful remark was made, I am sure, without any malicious intent. It was just stupid, ignorent and blatent anti-Americanism, which was lapped up by some of those present. But where does all this resentment come from? Louis, incidentally, works for an American-owned company, to which he owes a very comfortable lifestyle.

Americans constantly have their ears set burning with painful remarks of the same kind, and especially right now. Louis is right of centre in his politics, but he'd be comforted by the knee-jerk anti-Americanism which fills the vision of the left in France (and across Europe), who have always found the ideal bogeyman in Uncle Sam. It's stunning to note this common target unites everyone from José Bové to Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Much of French society increasingly strives to ape Americans; from corporate culture to lifestyle habits, from TV series to 'hip' phrases. They love it, but they say they hate it.

Objectively, it's very difficult to see how anyone with an ounce of intellectual integrity can seriously believe France has something significant to teach the US in terms of political democracy, which includes issues of opportunity, accountability, freedom of the media and established common values. Is France in a position to lecture Americans on racism - or racial integration?

That's not to say the US is a model of society, far from it, but lets keep a balance here. Americans rightly have a reputation for little understanding of the world beyond their national borders - but the ignorance is also blatent the other way round, too, except that despite that everybody has an opinion about Americans..

Right now, the problem is that anti-Americanism is forcing a lot of people into a corner and intelligent discussion is going by the wayside. If you're American but not a supporter of George W. Bush, you'll be finding it increasingly difficult to express that at a Paris dinner table, assaulted by some of the daft political comments which insult all Americans, summed up in observations like "they had it coming to them".

Few, if any, who make these remarks actually realise the implications, which are an apology for terrorism.

With the deepening world crisis, it's a depressing situation to see so little profound and open discussion, free of caricature, national rivalries and political dogma. Blinkered opinion, ignorance - whether in France or the US - is what wars feed upon.

Returning to the US cemetery Colleville, I wanted to add here that it's one of the most emotionally moving places I've ever visited. The staggering sight of so many men buried in that one place is the sharpest and saddest reminder of the horrors of war that I know. There's no more poignant answer to anti-Americanism than that seemingly endless field of tombs on a hill above the sea.

12 September, 2002

(This article was written by Graham Tearse, former editor of Expatica France).

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