France tries to understand America.

France tries to understand America.

France tries to understand America.

Events beyond our borders.
Oct. 28 2004 1:33 PM

The New de Tocquevilles

The French are just trying to understand.

Paris bookstore
Paris bookstore

America is a shark. Full of religious zealots. Who are deeply divided against themselves.

These are just a few descriptions of the United States gleaned from just-released French books devoted to deciphering and explaining the other red, white, and blue. Parisian editors are dining out on a new subgenre that includes tirades, serious academic tomes, election-timed quickies by celebrity journalists, and even a novel, Frenchy, about a Parisian living in Texas when the United States invaded Iraq.

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Clotaire Rapaille is a U.S.-based, French-born marketing consultant who specializes in selling across cultures. He has advised Denmark-based Lego that Americans do not read instructions and taught French cheese-makers that Americans prefer their cheese "scientifically dead." Rapaille told me that the last French publishing boomlet had a self-critical tendency: "France is in decline, France is becoming irrelevant. This is what I saw last year." As a former psychoanalyst, he has an explanation for the new phenomenon: "It's transference. The French have transferred their psychology of decline to America, so they feel better," he said. "Now they have a mission: They are going to defend mankind against the United States."

I counted at least 17 French books published this year on the United States or relations with it, most since September. Add to that a handful of books from 2003, plus dozens of U.S. titles in translation—Kitty Kelley, Graydon Carter, and Bill Clinton are all here—and you can find entire bookstore tables devoted to decoding the country that rebaptized frites as frites de la liberté. New titles vie for attention with copies of the genre's prototype, which some would say has yet to be improved upon: Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville. In 1835 he brought news of the New World back to the old, with prescient observations like this one on local government: "The people wield immense influence over their magistrates and often carry their desires into execution without intermediaries."

So, just what is out there now, and what does it say?

The protagonist in Frenchy, who runs a French food store, suffers prolific insults, and a veteran urinates in his garden. Still, one of his nicer neighbors tells him that America "has nothing to do with those guys in Washington." The review in Le Figaro said the novel was "as valuable as the best courses in international relations at the most prestigious universities."

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You can't beat The Shark and the Seagull, by former Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, for the author's way with metaphor. It's about the rotten state of trans-Atlantic relations. (I'll let readers guess which country is which in the book's title.) The takeaway, though, isn't clear. The shark refuses to be halted. The seagull listens. They must reconcile their values, which will save the world. Or something like that.

Some of the other new works include France Against the Empire, Empire of Chaos, The Emperor of the White House, Imperial America, The Good Fortune of Not Being American, and Democracy With an Obscene Face. The last, by Jacques Vergès, a lawyer who has volunteered to defend Saddam Hussein, is illustrated with photographs of prisoner abuse inside Abu Ghraib.

Titles notwithstanding, the new books are not all polemics. Anti-Americanism is certainly present in France, but the chattering classes are making a serious attempt to understand both the United States and the Franco-U.S. dynamic. Earnest broadcasters ask the new Americologists questions like, "Do we hate Americans because we try to imitate them?"

Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Center on the United States and editor of The United States Today: Shock and Change, says there are two major explanatory fads afoot in the attempt to understand U.S. behavior: It's all about the neocons, and it's all about religion.

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With few exceptions, French writers "superbly ignored" neoconservatism for years, Parmentier told me—then suddenly noticed it about 18 months ago. "Now because of the Bush administration, many French observers—guys who have no interest in the facts, but who are interested in big ideas—have discovered neoconservatives and see them all over the place. They call Cheney and Rumsfeld neoconservatives, which is totally absurd," Parmentier said.

While dismissive of many of the new books, Parmentier has high praise for one, Messianic America: The Wars of the Neoconservatives, by Le Monde journalists Alain Frachon and Daniel Vernet. It's a full history of the neocons, from their hatchery among the Democratic left in New York to their post-9/11 influence on the presidency. The publisher's blurb explains that neoconservatives think America is the embodiment of good and that it "can assure its own security and remain true to its moral mission only by exporting democracy, by force if necessary." French readers may acquire a more sophisticated understanding of U.S. foreign policy than many an American liberal.

Author Guy Sorman
Author Guy Sorman

As for the second fad, religion, authors like Guy Sorman treat it as paramount. The author of Made in USA focuses on the fact that a full 80 percent of Americans say they believe in God. Americans are "a mystical people," he says, and he has a theory that all religions in America are converging into one as their modes of worship become more and more alike.

A third theme emerges in many of the books: It's all about Sept. 11. Except, while there is general agreement that the United States must have been traumatized and profoundly changed by the terrorist attacks, no one seems to be sure exactly how. Indeed, Sorman went looking for evidence of a transformation and found that "American society has remained self-centered, too busy to fuse into a single nation capable of taking an interest in faraway cultures. No more books on Islam are sold, no more foreign films seen than before the attacks; students are not moving any faster toward learning foreign languages."

Can Americans learn anything from foreign anthropologists studying their own? Sorman says the point is moot. He has "no illusion" that he could be influential in the United States—unless he emigrated. "No one is interested in what foreigners have to say, not liberals or conservatives," he said. "The beliefs of Americans are so profound, they are so convinced that they are building a new civilization, with a universal appeal, that the comments from outside are insignificant."

That may be true. But while only hindsight will tell if Sorman and the rest are truly Tocquevillian, I think this passage from Made in USA will hold up for a long time to come:

[In America] it's taken for granted that a community left to its own devices will spontaneously organize, without waiting for higher authorities to do it. This democratic ideal, shaped by the history of the United States, can lead American governments, in their foreign interventions, to expect the same of other societies. Sometimes in vain.