The most common perception of France found these days in the American media is that of an arrogant country, whose international gesticulations are the last hurrah masking its inevitable decline into oblivion. The French have not yet come to terms with their lengthy collapse, which started with the devastation of World War I, continued with the humiliation of their defeat in 1940 and was furthered by the loss of their colonial empire. This would explain their support, still to this day, for a Gaullist policy made up of power incantations, in contrast to real power—or lack thereof. Of course, this characterization is meant as much as an insult as an objective statement of fact. What few of these American commentators comprehend, however, is how much this image of a nation blinded by self-confidence is erroneous. On the contrary, the French have excelled at self-flagellation for a long time, rightly or wrongly. Whether one calls it “malaise” or decline, French commentators are the first to confess that France is free-falling—whether vis-à-vis the US, its European partners, or its own aspirations.
Why do the French appear as incorrigible anti-Americans? Why is France singled out as a bastion of systematic opposition to US policies? Anti-Americanism can be defined as an unfavorable predisposition towards the United States, which leads individuals to interpret American actions through pre-existing views and negative stereotypes, irrespectively of the facts. It is based on a belief that there is something fundamentally wrong at the essence of what is America. This unfavorable predisposition manifests itself in beliefs, attitudes and rhetoric, which may or may not affect political behavior. Is France, according to this definition, anti-American? It is difficult in practice to distinguish between genuine anti-Americanism (disposition) and genuine criticism of the United States (opinion). It is partly because of this definitional ambiguity that France appears more anti-American than its European partners. While it is not clear that the French have a stronger negative predisposition against the US, they do have stronger opinions about America for at least three main reasons: the deep reservoir of anti-American arguments accumulated over the centuries; the simultaneous coexistence of a variety of types of anti-Americanism; and the costless ways in which anti-Americanism has been used for political benefit. This article explores each of these three features in turn, before discussing briefly the consequences of French anti-Americanism on world politics.
France has become a worldwide champion of antiglobalization. France is home to José Bové—sheepfarmer turned McDonalds’ wrecker and, in the process, world famous antiglobalization activist. France is also home to ATTAC, a vocal organization originally designed to promote the so-called “Tobin tax” on financial transactions, but which has since become a powerful antiglobalization lobby present in over 30 countries. France is a country where intellectuals have long denounced the cultural and economic shortcomings of US-led globalization, and where newspapers and other media outlets have endlessly documented how France was threatened by foreign entertainment, customs and values. In short, criticizing globalization “sells” in France. French politicians have understood and embraced this trend. On the Left as on the Right, for the past few years, political figures have loaded their speeches with rhetoric critical of a phenomenon that gets a lot less attention in other European countries and in the United States.
Is France still relevant? Asking this provocative question in honor of the late Stanley Hoffmann’s lifelong commitment to French studies, I examine the contemporary role of France in international affairs, in Europe, and in globalization. The article then analyzes the structural reasons for these shifts in relevance, as well as the possible political openings to break from the “stalemate society,” including the emergence of new “artists in politics.” I conclude by reflecting on how the current uncertain state of the world, which may be on the cusp of a tectonic shift precipitated by the advent of Donald Trump in the United States and the resurgence of nationalism in Europe, is both challenging what is left of France’s international relevance and providing it with renewed opportunities to play a meaningful role under the presidency of young, pro-European Emmanuel Macron.
Philip H. Gordon and Sophie Meunier
The nature of the French economy has changed radically in recent years. Breaking with its mercantilist and dirigiste past, France has since the early 1980s converted to market liberalization, both as the necessary by-product of European integration and globalization and as a deliberate effort by policymakers. Whereas the French state used to own large sectors of the economy, partly to keep them from foreign control, now even a Socialist-led government proceeds with privatization, with scant regard for the nationality of the buyer.