Anti-Americanism and Parisian Ennui

Joe Klein's European Listening Tour

Anti-Americanism and Parisian Ennui

Joe Klein's European Listening Tour

Anti-Americanism and Parisian Ennui
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 30 2002 11:28 AM

Joe Klein's European Listening Tour

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Today's itinerary: Paris, France.

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There is an accordion player on the Metro. France, at last! I suddenly remember that a part of my job is to confront the allegedly reflexive Gallic anti-Americanism. But I haven't found any anti-Americans in Lens or Lille. Surely, in Paris there must be a few. My first stop is with students at the Institut d' Études Politiques (popularly known as Sciences-Po), which is the training ground for the French political and diplomatic elite and, no doubt, a hotbed of raving Yank-bashers.

"So," I say, confronting five incipient political elitists, "what do you think of America these days?" As my daughter would respond: Well, duh! Bush is an idiot cowboy. Unilateralism is outrageous. The axis of evil is a ridiculous formulation. Americans are hypocrites about free trade. The Jewish lobby runs the show. You've heard these things before? Me too. (What's more, I only disagree with two of the five: Bush is neither an idiot nor a cowboy; the Jewish lobby is influential, but not nearly so powerful as the dairy farmers; the other propositions are viable.) Interesting thing, though: not much heat to any of this. The students are reciting. They've done this before. They're not even bothered by American cultural imperialism. That was five years ago. They're drinking Cokes. And so, bored, I ask them about Europe.

A young woman named Nadia, who may well turn out to be the French Margaret Thatcher, takes center stage. She has a face that is simultaneously round and severe—a church-lady look—and rimless glasses and an air of superiority. She is a doctoral candidate and an employee—already!—of the European commission. Her job is to go around France giving speeches about enlargement of the European Union. And guess what? "It is shocking. No one knows it is going to happen!" she says. "And when I tell them, they don't want it. It is an economic burden they don't need. Remarkably, this wasn't an issue in the presidential election."

Why not? I ask. Suddenly the table is alive. There is real emotion. The students are infuriated with an elite that will not countenance a discussion, much less a vote, on this question. To an American, this seems preposterous, impossible, an open invitation to the worst sort of know-nothing, populist reaction. "Wasn't it Jacques Delors who said, 'Europe is too serious to be left to the people?' " offers a small, puckish fellow who is a specialist in social policy. "Perhaps we are going to see what the people think of that." (I don't know if Delors actually said this, but most of the people I spoke to seemed to think so—which may be all that matters.)

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The talk turns back to immigration—enlargement could add a tsunami of immigrants from the east—and then it turns to the difficulties France has had assimilating Islamic immigrants. "Religion should be left in the home," Madame Thatcherre avers, regaining control of the table. "We believe in a secular society. For a Frenchman to see a woman wearing a veil, that is perceived as a failure of society. We seem to have difficulty succeeding with the Muslims. We made Frenchmen out of the Italians, the Poles, the Spanish immigrants ..."

Ryan, an American student from Seattle, begins to laugh. "How can the French coexist in the European Union if they want to make everyone into Frenchmen?" he asks Thatcherre, the E.U. employee, who is nonplussed. "This is something I've learned here," he explains to me. "Egalité has a special meaning. It means everyone is welcome to become an equal Frenchman."

Having failed miserably in my effort to manage a proper row over America with the students—and then, later, with several other Paris intellectuals—I ask a friend, Patrick Weil, a professor at the University of Paris, to find me a really smart, really extreme anti-globalist. He recommends Serge Halimi of Le Monde Diplomatique.

"Bush is a godsend," says Halimi—who is, indeed, very smart—over coffee in a cafe across the street from his office. "Clinton was almost as bad as Bush, a globalist through and through, but he was much tougher to make an argument against because he made it appear the things he wanted were good for everyone, not just America. Bush, the rich man who pretends he's a cowboy, is so patently ridiculous. He makes our argument easy."

We descend the inevitable stairway into the murky depths of globaloney. Neither of us says anything surprising. You've had such conversations, no doubt. Yawn. Finally, I tell him about my surprising afternoon at Sciences-Po and ask about EU enlargement. "The Socialist party was a movement of the people until the 1980s. It had a program that was very popular with the people: Socialism," Halimi says, beginning a lecture. "When Socialism fell out of fashion, they tried to replace it with the idea of Europe. That was not so popular. It was an elite, technocratic notion. They can't even use the proper word for it: They call it modernity. And now they give us these incredibly foolish banknotes."

He pulls several euros from his appropriately thin wallet. "Look at them! Bridges—over what? Doors—leading where? What empty, ugly symbols! Symbols of nothing! On a European continent famous for its artistic and intellectual geniuses, there are no people on them. As if the French would not tolerate a banknote with Da Vinci on it. As if the Italians would not tolerate Victor Hugo!"

I mention that he is shouting. I add that he wasn't nearly so passionate when the topic was America. He looks at me and smiles, tacitly conceding that what he is about to say is a matter of personal pride rather than of complete conviction. "Well," he says," of course, this European federation is only a part of the American project of globalization."

Joe Klein is a staff writer for The New Yorker. He is traveling in Europe for the London Guardian, where a version of this article first appeared.