The spontaneous solidarity shown by the French to the Americans after the 9/11 attacks, and the support offered by the Americans to the French after the 2015 and 2016 attacks, proves that anti-Americanism in France was never more than a political or literary tool, an ideology which replaced knowledge.
Much has been written on the history of French anti-Americanism, particularly by historian Philippe Roger (The American Enemy, 2002), who had offered the most exhaustive coverage of the matter until philosopher Jean-François Revel published his final work, The Anti-American Obsession in 2002. Roger traced French distrust of Americans back to the independence of the United States, dredging up texts by travelers terrified by the brutal nature of North America, both its land and its inhabitants. But I would suggest that anti-Americanism, as a political ideology, was in fact invented by French diplomat Talleyrand while in exile in Philadelphia in 1794. In his correspondence, he describes and decries the Americans with a few well-chosen words that hit the nail on the head at the time, and were perpetuated up until the modern day. Talleyrand was an aristocrat, a snob, and a regular in the Parisian salons, and found that the bourgeois class of Philadelphia lacked both conversation and culture. This cliché of an unsophisticated America has haunted French literature ever since.
Talleyrand, quite obviously the founder of the anti-American ideology, remarked that the Americans had 100 religions but just a single dish: roast beef and potatoes. Replace this meal with an equally sarcastic McDonald’s, and Talleyrand becomes a contemporary critic. This exiled Frenchman, who nevertheless made his fortune in real estate speculation in Pennsylvania, was also responsible for defining an anti-American diplomatic trend which influenced figures from the French Minister for Foreign Affairs right up to General de Gaulle. Disappointed by George Washington’s allegiance to Great Britain against revolutionary France, Talleyrand regretted that France had contributed to the independence of the Americans, who “were really nothing more than Englishmen.” De Gaulle went on to say “Anglo-Saxons,” but the disdain was the same.
There is no corresponding anti-French literary school in the United States, or not one as systematic and constant and its equivalent in France. Franklin Delano Roosevelt certainly distrusted De Gaulle, but he was not anti-French. Satirical outbursts against French fries and the “defeatism” of the French were restricted to the Iraq War following Jacques Chirac’s refusal to join the combat, and were first and foremost the work of Fox News. What is constant, however, in American literature about France, is an unbridled, excessive admiration of French civilization reduced to its stereotypes.
The English writer Piu Marie Eatwell published a larger-than-life essay on this theme, entitled They Eat Horses, Don’t They?: The Truth About the French. In her work she takes a stand against “Froglit,” or literature that idealizes French men and women (who of course adore eating frogs’ legs), whose leading standard-bearer is journalist Mireille Guiliano, author of the simply ridiculous Why French Women Don’t Get Fat. The statistical truth is that French people are the leading European consumers of, not frogs’ legs, but McDonald’s, and that French obesity figures are catching up with those of the Americans. On both sides of the Atlantic, our customs and cultures are increasingly similar, melding into a new, global civilization. French intellectuals have abandoned the anti-American sentiment because Marxism in France is old hat, and the French economy (contrary to what U.S. classic liberals may think) is just as capitalistic as in the United States. French diplomacy has also given up on the trajectory that reached from Talleyrand to De Gaulle, because the myth of a Third Way, between capitalism and communism, fell at the same time as the Berlin Wall. Both the French and the Americans now share a common world view, founded on the defense of democratic civilization against the brutality of jihadists and Putin.
While there is an extensive written history of anti-Americanism, the time has now come to write the end of this trend. Historical research may well reveal that this hostility towards the United States was in fact a sentiment shared more frequently by the French elite — aristocrats, diplomats and writers — than by the people. With the exception of a handful of demonstrations organized in the 1950s by the French Communist Party, France has witnessed no popular anti-American movements throughout its history. Perhaps anti-Americanism was simply an act, “two old, rival actresses,” as stated by the former French Minister for Foreign Affairs, Hubert Védrine. Well now it’s curtains for this tired performance: The spontaneous solidarity shown by the French to the Americans after the 9/11 attacks, and the support offered by the Americans to the French after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, proves that anti-Americanism in France was never more than a political or literary tool, what we call an ideology, and which replaced knowledge. But now we inhabit an interconnected world, the French are really getting to know the real United States, while the Americans — with the exception of Mrs. Guiliano — are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about France. Anti-Americanism as an ideology is now a thing of the past.
Op-ed published in the March 2015 issue of France-Amérique.