I was on the phone not long ago talking to a French journalist about the humiliation of Alain Minc, the chairman of Le Monde and the sole survivor of the coup that ousted Jean-Marie Colombani. It seemed the paper’s journos thought Minc was too close to Sarkozy for their left-leaning comfort. (Le Figaro has part of the story here, and in English.) I wondered what it all meant. “Americans are interested in this?” he asked. “I thought they only cared about their freedom fries.”
His remark stung like a moth. Freedom fries! Those were the days. Or, rather, day, since when it came to American concerns about French perfidy, the preoccupation was brief — and is now over. The blizzard of cable- and ‘net-generated news covering the nation buried European anti-Americanism long ago, and since much of what we had to say about the French was based on the rotten things they had to say about us, “freedom fries” are now part of a lost language. Mention “France” in places like Kansas or Missouri and you can see people sort of stop, try to remember what it was they didn’t like about the sound of that word, then get back to work. All that U.N. stuff, the deceitful Villepin and the odious Chirac? That was all long ago. Once, France was a nation large enough to stretch all the way from Cavuto to O’Reilly and back again and again. But today, you can listen to Fox News 24/7 and not hear France mentioned once. In the new mental Rorschach of the nation, the immediate response to “Paris” is “Hilton.”
My colleague, Paris-based Belgian journalist Alain Hertoghe, thought something similar was happening in France — and in Europe generally. “Anti-Americanism. What happened to it?” he asked last week over lunch when we met to discuss a film project. He thought that since Sarkozy’s election-eve speech reassuring Washington that France was an actual ally and not an imaginary friend, the superficial variety of anti-Americanism — tourist-taunting and the like — seems to have receded.
Indeed, the French have been far too busy following their high-speed president who runs in the morning and doesn’t stop until late at night to pause for more than a moment’s reflection on the Bushism du jour. Sarkozy is a headline mill for the French press — coopting the Socialist opposition, throwing out the vile ENA-bred elitists I loved to write about, rolling back taxes, holding back the Turks, and all the while trying to protect French agriculture and industry at the expense of the EU’s fiscal policies. He seems to have understood that when people vote for change, they actually want change — as in new ideas, new policies, new ways of looking at things — not in the annoying, same-old political posturing that was the GOP’s undoing in the last elections and will eventually doom the Democrats, too.
And Sarko’s not the only news on the continent: For the last year or two, most of the big news has been local. The recent EU squabbles over “treaties” that look a lot like “constitutions,” the economic boomlet that has gone on for months now, images of people using wheelbarrows to cart dollars to the bank to get a euro for bread, and the newish governments not just in France, but in Germany, the U.K., Italy, and elsewhere, all of these have been compelling news stories. So local politics have trumped global flame-throwing in most national dailies. Toss in Darfur and China, and really you have all the news a normal person needs. America? That’s Bush and Iraq and that story’s now older than a cage full of surrender monkeys. “So anti-Americanism,” said Hertoghe, “we don’t hear so much any more, do we?” I must have looked disappointed, because he patted me on the arm and said, “Don’t worry! We know it’s stupid, a kind of insanity. But we love it. So it’ll be back.”
In fact, it’s still everywhere you look. Anti-Americanism long ago ceased to be the symptom of a transient fascination shared by people who lived far away from the New World. For a century or more it’s been a fundamental cultural assumption shared by most European politicians and by virtually all French leaders, often informing perceptions quietly and insidiously. What we’ve seen for the last few years has been an excess of rhetorical, noisy, cartoonlike anti-Americanism, the name-calling stuff that is as at home in Paris as it is on the “Huffington Post.”
That kind of anti-Americanism was given an artificial afterlife in Europe by a generation of political leaders who used Yank-bashing as a way of disguising an almost complete lack of political innovation and imagination. That might still work in Venezuela, but in Europe, those guys are goners. Sarko’s in; Chirac and Villepin are out — and, with luck, on their way to jail for a long inventory of misadventures. The French left is in disarray. Today, trashing a French McDonald’s is seen as a loser’s way to have at Uncle Sam.
That doesn’t mean anti-Americanism’s gone. There’s always a market for crème-pies delivered faceward; the biggest take-away in France from the recently published “diary” of Alastair Campbell’s days with Tony Blair, for example, concerned Chirac spinning around in a chair and insulting the U.S. (while Clinton was still in office) at a G8 meeting, as reported here by Le Figaro. No, it just means that it won’t gain headlines as easily. Hating America is a global and historical phenomenon. The idea that it’ll disappear when Bush finally stops trying to speak is nonsense; Hubert Védrine was no kinder to Bill Clinton’s America than Villepin was to Bush’s.
The rhetorical excess may change, but the fundamental anti-Americanism that characterizes the European strain of the illness is more persistent and potentially more dangerous. The French especially, but increasingly Europeans in general, cannot conceive of themselves except as a kind of anti-America, even when they mean nothing malicious by it. The more the EU homogenizes national distinctions into oblivion, the more need there is for a way to know who you are and where you live. You cannot pass through even a small village in France without seeing remnants of America — everything from hip-hop to NYPD T-shirts. Europe is best described as not America.
This is a cause for despair among those who would like to think of themselves as European intellectuals. Reading Wim Wenders’s call for an invigorated European cinema and culture in the New Statesman is an example. Wenders, a famous German director, is the president of the European Film Academy — “our equivalent of the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,” he has to explain, because there’s no other way to understand what it is. Wenders, of course, lives in Berlin. And Los Angeles.
Absent an identifiable, sharply differentiated European alternative way of seeing themselves, this sort of instinctive anti-Americanism is often the only way for a European to say “not us.” It’s an anti-Americanism that’s entrenched and institutionalized and in the coming years it will surface again and again — but almost always in association with a trade dispute or a monetary policy, something far less incendiary to most civilians than a foreign policy dispute, with all those easy-to-follow flags and slogans. “If the anti–Americanism were confined to verbal belly aching,” writes the Institute for Global Economic Growth’s Richard Rahm, “it would not be much of a problem. However, it is now leading to destructive policies. The Europeans have been more reluctant to further liberalize global trade than the Americans and, in fact, destructive protectionist forces on both sides of the Atlantic are gathering strength.”
The forecast: Trade wars with a heavy layer of diplomatic storm clouds. But for now, peace, all you French folk on your national holiday. No more name-calling as a substitute for serious political discussions. From now on, it’s down with free markets! Up with controlled economies! Or vice-versa! For French-bashers and anti-Americans on either side of the Atlantic, our differences will mean business.