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For one of the authors, the anti-Americanism of the French is a willful delusion, an attempt by a dominant political and intellectual caste to mask its own failures and insignificance.
For the other, French anti-Americanism is a centuries-old tradition a layered accumulation of condescension and fear, vastly more significant than the French gift of a Statue of Liberty to the United States or the assistance of a Marquis de Lafayette and a rare terrain in French national life where conflicting political and intellectual forces can find common ground.
The books' novelty is two-fold. One is in their premises and the other in their success.
The academic work essentially subordinates the official idea of a history of good relations between the two societies to focus on the evolving genealogy of French revulsion from and opposition to the United States.
Both books distinguish French anti-Americanism from normal criticism of the United States as pushing criticism beyond the rational to a level of virulence where it essentially defines French problems and inadequacies while undermining France's capacity to make its way in the world.
For a study that insists on what the author calls a profoundly French malaise inherent in French anti-Americanism an essentially contrarian concept here Philippe Roger's book, "L'Ennemi americain," has been received with exceptional praise. Le Monde described it as "a chef d'oeuvre of semantic history" and Le Nouvel Observateur said it was a "masterly" analysis of a French tradition that reflects a combination of stupidity, ignorance, and paranoia.
Jean-Francois Revel's "L'Obsession anti-americaine" has been rewarded with the number 1 place on the nonfiction best-seller list. The writer, the single right-of-center pillar of French intellectual life known outside the country, argues that anti-Americanism in Europe and particularly in France is so reflexive, even when the United States is right, that it has resulted in the Americans' no longer paying any attention to criticism even when it is reasonable.
In a commentary last week, Thierry de Montbrial, director of the French Institute of International Relations, an establishment think tank, acknowledged that resentment about France's historical decline was reflected in French anti-Americanism. But while calling "L'Ennemi americain" a work of "great erudition," he refused to accept either of the books' most obvious common message.
"No serious study allows crossing the line to conclude the existence of deep, chronic and active anti-Americanism in France or any other European country for that matter," de Montbrial wrote.
Criticism of President George W. Bush's foreign policy, said de Montbrial, was hardly anti-Americanism. But neither Revel or Roger would disagree.
In contrast, Revel describes anti-Americanism as a constant alibi "a consolation," he says for European failure. France, he argues, is the "advanced laboratory where the most extreme and pointed ideas on the United States come together to be spread in a form that's milder and less polemical in Europe and elsewhere."
Revel is clearly singling out a kind of argumentation that developed in France about the real causes of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The explanation centered, he suggests, on resentment against America, its emergence as the sole superpower and its role as guardian of Israel. This viewpoint, he says, was elevated "in certain European capitals" read, Paris "to the rank of obsession and virtual lone principal in foreign policy."
Roger's book is the more remarkable of the two for its factual density, unique scholarship and bold vision. The title, "The American Enemy," is not a mere verbal challenge. Parallel to the official history of friendship and compatibility, Roger finds accusations of American coarseness, ingratitude, degeneration, violence and anti-democratic instincts constant themes across centuries of French commentary on America.
Roger points to the period of 1750 to 1770, that of the gestation of the United States, as creating a philosophical and "scientific" foundation for the development of French anti-Americanism.
Scholars of the French Enlightenment considered American plant and animal life degenerate, inferior to that in Europe. Children born in the New World were incapable of prolonged thought. Venereal disease had its home there. At the same time as the creation of the United States, and while a part of fashionable Paris was titillated by the Yankee insurgents, Roger writes, by 1778 in France a "a globally negative image of America was anchored in the literate public."
For Roger, the North's victory in the Civil War, with France on the side of the South, and "dreaming of the dismemberment" of the United States, was for the French an
imagined prologue to American wars in the world beyond. In the author's view, emphasis on the pro- Union sentiment of a Victor Hugo or a Jules Verne is an "ideological painting over" that obscures the Civil War as a "crystallization of French anti-Americanism."
The American peril turned into an ominous certainty for the French in 1898, when the Americans defeated the Spanish colonial forces in Havana and Manila and became an "imperial" nation. For Roger, more than 100 years of anti-American sedimentation in France take shape at this point and harden. Conservatives and monarchists in France joined forces with their sworn domestic enemies, the Republicans and anti-clerical factions, in damning the Americans now seen as a Yankee race apart, "hard and vindictive," and far less compatible than the English or Germans.
It is here that Roger comes to one of his central theses:
"At the highest point of discord in a divided France (in 1898), anti-Americanism is the only 'French passion' that calms the other passions, effaces antagonisms and reconciles the harshest adversaries. Patching things up at the expense of the United States or, at the least, halting hostilities between French factions in the face of a supposed common enemy will remain a constant of political and intellectual life.
"It is impossible to understand French anti-Americanism or its timelessness if you don't see the social-national benefits it represents in manufacturing a tissue of consensus."
The presence of anti-Americanism is central to the author's reading of the periods following World Wars I and II. By 1930, Georges Clemenceau, the French war hero, tells the Americans "your intervention was easy on you, costing 56,000 lives instead of our 1,364,000 killed."
The United States, which demanded payment by France of its war debts in the 1920s, was soon "Uncle Shylock," the title, tinged with anti-Semitism, of a popular book of the period. After 1945, Roger writes, the French Communist Party's theme of a new "Hitler Made in U.S.A." was taken over, albeit with greater subtlety, by a vast number of French anti-American intellectuals.
Why the Americans and not the Germans, after three wars fought between the neighbors on the Rhine from 1870 to 1945?
"Because since 1945," Roger said in an interview, "there is an enormous effort not to demonize the Germans. The Communists said Eisenhower was the heir of Hitler, and in a sense this succeeded in passing the hatred from the Germans to the Americans. In spite of the wars, among French intellectuals there's been admiration for German scholarship and culture. At the same time, for these people, Picasso or Sartre, and so many others, the United States was the expression of the nonintellectual, the anti-spiritual."
Without the immigrant waves of the Germans, Italians or British to the United States, Roger believes, the French, among the Europeans, uniquely lacked individual, family or warmly personal links to the Americans. This meant that French intellectuals, virtually all suspicious or contemptuous, give or take a Tocqueville, in historical terms had the making of the tone of the relationship all to themselves.
Now, he discounts the idea that French animosity toward the United States is linked to some kind of rivalry between two countries, believing they have universal cultures.
Indeed, Roger argues, the idea never existed until very recently, with the French, who see their exceptionalism as linked to their revolution, always believing there never was a real, legitimizing revolution in America.
To the researchers who thought anti-Americanism would depart with the French taste for American films, clothes and consumerism, Roger replies that watching American movies represents no commitment to their values. The Sept. 11 attacks resulted in a moment of emotion, he found, but no change in an anti-American mind-set.
The United States of French anti-Americanism, Roger said, was an "imaginary Franco-French construction."
By reflex, Roger suggests, France characterizes certain domestic failings as American, and therefore tends to excuse or remove itself from the issues it has let get out of hand, like violence, racial tensions or the failed integration of immigrant groups.
"We keep creating a mythological America in order to avoid asking ourselves questions about our real problems," he told a reporter. "And they're problems that the Americans don't have much to do with."