From the beginning, the destinies of France and the United States have been interwoven, and not only by the epic events of the War of Independence, two global conflicts, and diplomatic relations. The deepest reason for this shared destiny lies, in my opinion, in the shared and obviously excessive ambition of each of our two nations to present itself as a universal model. The forerunner who first discerned this convergence was Jean de Crèvecœur, the first truly American writer, albeit a native of Caen; he became an American citizen and spent most of his life in New York City, where he was the first to hold the office of French consul. It was the work of Jean de Crèvecœur, later St. John, in his 1782 Letters from an American Farmer, to become the pioneer of the American dream. He was the first to describe the new United States, not as a colony like any other, but as a nation of a new kind founded on the will to live together in solidarity, democracy, and equality. He was also among the first to condemn slavery in America as well as in the French colonies.
Beginning with Crèvecœur and his work, American exceptionalism took hold in Europe as well as in the United States. Lafayette, Tocqueville, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, and a thousand others followed in Crèvecœur’s path, either approving or denigrating this exceptionalism, but never denying its singularity. This American ambition of exceptionalism, to be the model of democracy, was bound to enter into competition with France, which itself, from the 1789 Revolution to Mitterrand’s social democracy, by way of laïcité (the idea of the secular republic) and Gaullism, shared this pretention of universalism. For this reason, our two countries have often come close to conflict. President Andrew Jackson almost went to war against the monarchy that was late in making payments in compensation for the Napoleonic Wars, and Napoleon III openly wished for a Confederate victory in order to create an empire with Mexico. Tempers rose again after 1920 because France was not paying its war debts. But we must not fail to cite Colonel Charles Stanton as he stood before the tomb of the French hero of the American Revolution in 1917: “Lafayette, we are here!” Let us remember, though, that Charles de Gaulle took France out of NATO in 1966 in order to separate France from American diplomacy. (Nicolas Sarkozy brought France back into NATO in 2009.) And now we have President Macron, who is moved by the same desire for independence to avoid a pointless conflict with China.
Beyond these vicissitudes, 2021 seems to represent a turning point in the convergence of our two countries. Here is why: While Americans have always mistrusted a French style of socialism that (as they think, especially in the conservative camp) would regiment citizens and destroy the basis of triumphant capitalism, Joe Biden is proposing the universalization of a national health insurance system as well as aid to families for the education of young children – this according to norms that have been in place in France for half a century. Meanwhile, symmetrically, the French, led by Emmanuel Macron, are trying to come closer to American capitalism by encouraging the creation of businesses rather than maintaining old companies on life support. By describing France as the future “start-up nation,” Macron is conceding to the American economic model, as Jean-Jacques Servan- Schreiber had proposed as early as 1967 in The American Challenge. The French political left, which is in principle anti-capitalist, has hardly protested against this effective Americanization of the French economy. And, whether we rejoice in or deplore the fact, financial success, once considered by the French to be vulgar and American, has now become a public criterion of social recognition. Of course, this new wealthy class has yet to discover American-style philanthropy, which will be necessary for the French to forgive them for being too rich, following the example of John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates in the United States.
Another spectacular convergence of 2021 concerns the climate crisis. Both our countries recognize it, but they used to differ on the means to contain it. The proliferation of wind turbines in France and the United States can be no more than a palliative ; the concrete solution for containing carbon dioxide emissions is a return to nuclear power. It is quietly returning, here and there, both in France and America, but now in the form of miniature plants and modular reactors, which Macron has praised. These are now being developed, somewhat in France, but essentially by Silicon Valley start-ups. The French may find some meager consolation in the fact that many engineers in these companies are graduates of the French grandes écoles.
There has also been a great convergence between France and the United States in terms of moral self-examination. The Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements spread instantly from the United States to France and, in both cases, have gone far beyond their initial objectives. The French as well as the Americans are involved in a vast movement to review their colonial histories, the domestic exploitation of Black and Native Americans in the United States, and the international exploitation of Africans and North Africans by France. Macron has said that colonization was a crime against humanity; an American president could say the same of the Philippines. We are waiting.
Such a recognition of real history, a history no longer romanticized by the winners, will always be considered controversial by those who are nostalgic for the old world, which, it seems, was white and virile. Donald Trump made himself the spokesman for the world that has disappeared or is disappearing. He has found a plagiarizing disciple and media-adept Pinocchio by the name of Eric Zemmour. Both Trump and Zemmour cling to a past that refuses to pass and call for resistance which, as we saw in the assault on the Capitol in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021, leads inevitably to violence. Our two countries will overcome these appeals to civil war, because such appeals mobilize the past but propose no future. Democracy in France and in America will emerge from these trials strengthened and different: multicultural, as Crèvecœur wrote in his day, and each enriched by the experience of the other.
Editorial published in the December 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.