The specter of Americanization has returned to haunt France once again. As Disneyland Paris celebrates its thirtieth birthday, the floodgates of reproach and recrimination have reopened. Critics are sharpening their knives and tongues (if not their wits) and complaining that France has sold her soul, her culture – even her food (apparently, Chocolate Chip Mickey Waffles are a thing) – for a mess of sanitized American pottage. Of course, the barbs aren’t aimed solely at Disney, for the criticism is as much about the colonized as it is about the colonizer.
Readers of this publication are more aware than most that the relationship between the U.S. and its oldest ally is often, let’s say, complicated. In particular, the conception that crass American materialism has bulldozed France’s superior cultural heritage is a time-honored trope that nonetheless ignores a two-way process. In 1930, for example, after a visit to the United States, the author Georges Duhamel lamented that America was conquering the Old World, but he added that “although a handful of people regard what’s happening with mistrust and sadness, there are a thousand who cry out for it.” While admiring America’s energy and inventiveness, Duhamel was appalled by what he called the soulless materialism and puritanism of its society. His essay, Scènes de la vie future, was lauded by anti-American critics (“This little book in a flimsy yellow cover stands up to the huge mass of gold and steel underlying American wealth and egotism”) and was later translated into English with the provocative title America, the Menace: Scenes from the Life of the Future.
The author’s criticisms fed into a much wider debate over the relative flaws and merits of American exceptionalism, where a relentless drive for efficiency was regularly compared and contrasted with a gentler, more circuitous – and arguably less efficient – existence in France. The mismatch between straight-line and curved trajectories was memorably illustrated by Jacques Tati in his 1949 film The Big Day, where a country-bumpkin mailman is galvanized into action by a documentary about the impressively productive U.S. Postal Service, but never quite manages to mend his unhurried ways. The message in every case was that the Americans live to work, while the French work to live. And yet, les Yankees have always fascinated and frightened in equal measure.
Most observers agree that a sea change in Franco-American relations occurred after World War II. Until then, the two countries were culturally distant lands: Charles de Gaulle once remarked that if Great Britain was an island and France the tip of a continent, America was a whole other world. But in the 1950s, ordinary French folk rather than urban intellectuals came into direct contact with American popular culture and its symbols, including hot dogs, nylon stockings, jazz, and Coca-Cola. Even then, feelings were mixed. While French youngsters embraced what they called l’american way of life, their elders remained wary. Le Monde, the staid newspaper of record, warned that the country’s cultural landscape was under threat from “coca-colonization,” shorthand for all things American. Yet the rush towards a U.S.-style consumer society, in which the pursuit of individual happiness trumps the collective good, was not confined to France.
Across Europe, the fruits of consumerism found their way into houses, kitchens, and garages – and, for countries in the Communist bloc, they became symbols of what communism was unable to provide (blue jeans were a prized commodity that had to be imported illegally to satisfy young Poles, Czechs, and Russians). Over time, the tendency to blame America for what was ultimately a global process diminished almost everywhere. But it lingered – and continues to linger – in France, where the threat to national identity is still seen as real. America is an easy scapegoat because America is so, well, American and materialistic, while France is the home of la civilisation, which, according to American historian Richard Kuisel, defines the distance between the two societies.
If France became increasingly Americanized during les Trente Glorieuses – the three decades of economic expansion following World War II – the process went into overdrive from 1980 onward. Hollywood superproductions dominated French movies (the noun un blockbuster replaced the equivalent un film à gros budget in everyday speech); McDonald’s became the eatery of choice on French shopping streets (just as le fast-food became a standard term); country music (you guessed it, la country) flooded the airwaves; and a command of English – or a business-oriented pidgin thereof – turned into a vital necessity (or un must) in most areas of commercial activity.
English also became the standard language of French popular music, where emblematic artists like Georges Brassens and Serge Reggiani were edged out by homegrown acts with names such as Daft Punk and Pony Pony Run Run. Even traditional first names now have an American twang: Kevin and Jordan are more likely to be heard in the schoolyard than François or Jean-Pierre. Meanwhile, on Main Street, le Thanksgiving and le Black Friday have become established as key dates (and ear-jarring terms) in the retail industry’s calendar. Americanization, it would seem, is un done deal.
Which brings us back to Disney. Just as Coca-Cola came to symbolize Americanization in the 1950s and ‘60s, so the Wonderful World of Walt was originally seen in the 1990s as the Trojan horse that would infiltrate and ultimately topple French culture. When Euro Disney, as it was then called, opened its doors on April 12, 1992, it was vilified by the establishment. Criticisms ranged from the cerebral – “a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation” – to the disdainful: “a cultural Chernobyl.” One of the issues was that the park’s designers had striven to accommodate “European” culture, much as a pretentious American restaurant might try to hawk supposedly European cuisine.
The magic castles and Merlin-esque legends that had enchanted generations of Americans were ho-hum ordinary to visitors from, say France or Germany. And although Disney characters and productions have always been popular over here, they lack the cultural resonance that makes them truly meaningful in their homeland. In fact, the very idea that something as frivolous as a fantasy theme park – to boot, an American theme park – might be considered cultural was seen, at least by high-minded critics, as risible or insulting. But there lies the rub: Despite a shaky start, and a few gastronomic missteps such as not serving alcohol with meals, or failing to provide the right kind of breakfast, Euro Disney was a momentous success. Not just with European visitors but also with their French hosts, who eventually took it to their hearts: According to a recent survey by the pollster Ifop, six out of ten French people have visited the park – now called Disneyland Paris – at least once
in their lives.
Of course, Disney aside, the culture wars rumble on. Broadsides are regularly fired at supposed signs of Americanization, from cancel culture to wokeism. But many of these attacks conceal deeper, domestic problems that have little to do with imported values. Above all, French culture is resilient, and can surely withstand incursions by talking mice and unintelligible ducks. As Richard Kuisel concluded, the history of Americanization confirms the absorptive capacity of French civilisation. Americanization may have transformed France and made it more like America, but it did so without any proportionate loss of identity. France remains France, and the French remain French. That’s all, folks!