Why do the French hate us?

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Jan. 29 2003 7:27 PM

The French

Why do they hate us?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Americans rushed to bookstores and libraries in search of the answer to the question that had been thrust upon them: Why do they hate us? But who knew that we should have been boning up on the history of France, not Islam?

A funny thing happened on the way to the war: Our old allies the French, rather than our new Muslim foes, have become the caricatured foreigners of the war on terrorism. The French are tarred in the New York Post, among others,as the leaders of the "Axis of Weasel." National Review's Jonah Goldberg has made "cheese-eating surrender monkeys"—a Groundskeeper Willie line from an episode of The Simpsons—the rallying cry of Francophobes everywhere. After France's ambush of Colin Powell at last week's U.N. Security Council meeting, where the French foreign minister declared that military intervention in Iraq "would be the worst possible solution," it can't be long before someone declares the need for regime change in Paris.

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The debate over French anti-Americanism centers on the same question as the debate over Islamic radicalism: Do they hate us because of who we are, or what we do? As with the Middle East, the right takes the former tack, arguing that the French can be cowed into submission only by shows of strength. (The president also makes a point of claiming not to care why anyone hates us—least of all the French.) The left, on the other hand, tends to argue that we need to be more solicitous of France's needs. Their argument, in a nutshell: "It's our foreign policy, stupid."

Most recently, Eric Alterman laid out the liberal case in this week's cover story for The Nation.Alterman's explanation: The Bush administration's unilateral policies, both before and after 9/11, explain the French distaste for the United States. In fact, the French don't even dislike the United States, Alterman argues. Rather, they dislike its leader. President Bush's religiosity, self-righteousness, and indifference to allies justify France's low opinion. Alterman is essentially saying to Americans what Bush told Iraqis in the State of the Union address: "Your enemy is not surrounding your country—your enemy is ruling your country. And the day he and his regime are removed from power will be the day of your liberation." If President Clinton—or even Ronald Reagan—were in charge instead of Busharoo Banzai, the French would embrace America with open arms.

It sounds convincing—after all, lots of Europeans have been complaining about Bush of late. But it's not true. The French never really liked the Clinton administration, either. In June 2000, during President Clinton's last year in office, France was the only one (talk about unilateralism) of 107 countries to refuse to sign a U.S. initiative aimed at encouraging democracy around the world. A year earlier, State Department spokesman James Rubin complained, "We do find it puzzling and passing strange that France would spend so much energy and focus so much attention on the danger to them of a strong United States rather than the dangers that we and France together face from countries like Iraq." The French oppose the United States, quite simply, for what it is—the most powerful country on earth.

If Britain's "special relationship" with the United States is to pal around with it and work to influence its policies from within, France thinks it has an equally special relationship with the U.S.: Its sacred duty is to check American power by publicly and ostentatiously objecting to it from without. The French are so concerned by the dominance of American power—militarily, economically, culturally, and technologically—that a former French foreign minister felt the need to coin a new word to describe it: hyperpuissance, or "hyperpower." Think of it this way: France thinks the United States has so much power that the French language didn't have a word for it.

Much of the French opposition to American power arose after the fall of the Soviet Union made the United States the only power in a unipolar world: According to one poll, the percentage of the French who viewed the United States "with sympathy" dropped from 54 to 35 percent between 1988 and 1996. But French grumbling over U.S. power predates the end of the Cold War, too. As Philip H. Gordon outlined in the National Interest in 2000 (during the Clinton administration), "resentment and frustration" have marked French-American relations since the end of World War II. When Charles de Gaulle became president of the Fifth Republic, he was still resentful that FDR had refused to recognize his Free French resistance over the Vichy regime during the war. De Gaulle decided never to depend on the Americans again, and though he was an ally of the United States, he was an exceptionally cranky one, pursuing détente with the Soviet Union, withdrawing militarily from NATO, and establishing an independent French nuclear force.

Perhaps the most astonishing description of the rocky French-American relationship comes from the French diplomat who, in 1983, told the Atlantic that a particular change in U.S. policy "makes us wonder whether we can count on American administrations—just as we've been wondering since Congress refused to endorse the Treaty of Versailles." Americans don't have this sort of historical consciousness—at least, not for anything that happened abroad before World War II. It's as if an American diplomat said, "Well, we had to beat the frogs in the French and Indian War to lay the groundwork for national unity and manifest destiny, and well, we've been beating them ever since." Or, "You know, we've known ever since the XYZ Affair that you couldn't trust the French. That's why we've been sparring with them since the Quasi-War."

But history is at the core of the tensions between France and America. Donald Rumsfeld's comment last week about "old Europe" was telling: Americans see France as akin to Portugal, a once-great power now in decline. But as part of its own "special relationship" with the United States, France refuses to cede the world stage to the Americans. French identity is similar to American identity—France sees itself as a great nation worthy of power, the birthplace of democracy, and a culture and system of government that the world would be wise to emulate.

Which is why, in the end, France will go along with the Bush administration on Iraq. If France vetoes a Security Council resolution, and the Bush administration goes to war anyway, France will have been proved powerless. But if it accedes to the war after demanding more evidence, it will be able to claim that it influenced American policy—whether it's true or not. Germany will likely stand on principle and oppose the war. But France would never do such a thing. As a U.N. diplomat said last week, "It matters to matter for France."

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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