Home World Policy Institute World Policy Journal Research Projects Media Guide
Calendar of Events Contact Links Discussion

WPJ - Home

Winter '04/'05

Fall '04

Summer '04

Spring '04

Winter '03/04

Past Issues

About the Journal

Reader Services

Writer's Guidelines

Advertising &
Distribution

Journal Subscription

 

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL

BOOKS: Volume XX, No 2, Summer 2003
Print 
Friendly 
Brilliant Mischief: The French on Anti-Americanism
Bill Grantham*

[Go to interactive discussion forum]

L’ennemi américain: généalogie de l’antiaméricanisme français
Philippe Roger
Paris: Seuil, 2002

L’obsession antiaméricaine: son fonctionnement, ses causes,
ses inconséquences

JeanFrançois Revel

Paris: Plon, 2001

Après l’empire: essai sur la décomposition du système américain
Emmanuel Todd

Paris: Gallimard, 2002

One of the leading traitors of the American Revolution, Count Rumford (born plain Benjamin Thompson in Massachusetts), was indirectly responsible for the Baked Alaska. After a spying career on behalf of the British and some other military adventures, he moved to Paris and devoted his life to scientific observation, which included disquisitions on the properties of heat, among which was the recipe for omelette surprise, which used egg whites to insulate ice cream. Inspired by Rumford’s work, others labored to create desserts that similarly combined an inner core of ice cream with an outer casing of some hot, sweet matter—pastry or meringue. Maybe as a riposte to the Frenchified counterrevolutionary Rumford, Thomas Jefferson, the canonical American intellectual, is reported to have served ice cream encased in hot pastry at a White House dinner during his presidency.

Others built on Rumford’s breakthrough. The French food writer Baron Léon Brisé, who published a highly successful book of recipes despite apparently not knowing how to cook, wrote of the presentation, in 1866, of a dessert similar to the omelette surprise by the chef accompanying a visiting Chinese delegation to a Parisian confrère named Balzac. However, the man most closely identified with this delicious dish was Charles Ranhofer, the legendary (French-born) chef at Delmonico’s, the leading restaurant of New York in the nineteenth century. As a celebration of the purchase of Alaska by the United States from Russia in 1867, he served the meringue and ice cream concoction to a grateful world, initially calling it "Alaska, Florida."

However, Baked Alaska—as Ranhofer’s confection came to be known in English— was not to be the universal term for the dessert. About a quarter century after Ranhofer debuted his dish, a French chef named Giroix, locked in fierce competition with the great Escoffier for the palates of wintering tourists in Monte Carlo, co-opted the recipe and re-launched it on his public, giving it the name omelette norvégienne, or Norwegian omelet. And so the dish has remained in the culinary mainstream on both sides of the Atlantic ever since, with its different names in different languages. 1

In 1986, when many Americans were avoiding Europe following terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens and President Reagan’s strike against Libya, I was dining on a riverboat in Paris with, among others, an American visitor given to strong opinions on many topics. She regarded the dessert menu —which featured the omelette norvégienne— with high suspicion. "You know why they"—meaning the French—"call it Norwegian Omelet, don’t you?" she said, more as a statement than a question, swiftly providing her own answer in an angry crescendo: "It’s because they are anti-American!" The sudden tension caused by this strident declaration finally eased when a fellow guest suggested that, au contraire, it was because "they" were pro-Norwegian. The conversation moved on while the dinner guest consumed her Baked Alaska.

In some ways, this story encapsulates the crazy history of American anti-Gallicism and French anti-Americanism. The known facts can be spun in myriad ways: the treacherous American who embraces France (Rumford); the virtuous Frenchman who embraces America (Ranhofer); the wily Frenchman (Giroix) who steals a great American idea (Ranhofer’s); the great French chef (again, Giroix) who continues the legacy of another great French chef (again, Ranhofer); the patriotic celebration of American greatness (Baked Alaska); the perfidious denial of American greatness (Norwegian omelet). And, finally, the bitter declaration that blithely ignores all of the facts, whatever they may mean—it’s because "they" are anti-American.

We have recently seen, in the circumstances surrounding the Iraq invasion, a certain institutionalization of this type of nonsense as with the de-Frenched "freedom fries" and "freedom toast" now served in House of Representatives cafeterias thanks to the efforts of Republican representatives Bob Ney (said to be related to the Napoleonic Marshal Ney) and Walter Jones, which moved zealous House cafeteria managers to obliterate the word "French" on yogurt cartons and salad dressing sachets with red-white-and-blue stickers. 2 Similarly egregious was the "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" attack on the French, popularized by National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg, who purloined a joke from The Simpsons about education cuts—the children of Springfield are forced to learn French from Groundskeeper Willie—and defanged it to a mere slur. 3 French restaurants have reported cantankerous customers, a backlash against French wines, and ostentatiously anti-Gallic sentiments. 4 Anecdotally, I know of one or two people who have put off trips to France out of moral disapproval of the Chirac government’s opposition to the Iraq War, and even of a journalist acquaintance who has been pitching a magazine story wherein he travels across France wearing a prominent George W. Bush button and records the reaction of those he encounters (my guess: no reaction at all, but no matter).

This sort of thing has happened before: for instance, during the First World War, the British cauterized references to things German from public and private life: the royal line of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was reborn as the homely House of Windsor; the Teutonic Battenbergs were literally translated into Mountbattens, and the German shepherd dog became the ambiguously situated Alsatian. In the United States, sauerkraut became, briefly, liberty cabbage and the dachshund the liberty pup. 5 There is some real outrage behind this onomastic cleansing and other gestures, but also a certain opportunism when it is promoted on the official or quasi-official level, given that such gestures cause no damage at all to their target, as recently admitted ruefully by the conservative writer William F. Buckley in his syndicated column: "[T]here is no effective means of talking back to the French by economic retaliation. That piece of uneaten cheese or unbought dram of perfume has the paradoxical effect of causing more pain to the forfeited American than is inflicted on French exporters." 6

Moreover, there has been virtually no similar reaction in the United States to those countries that not only sided with France over Iraq, but were also leaders in the efforts to derail the Anglo-American war train, such as Russia, China, and Germany. Given the history of cold and hot wars with these three countries, compared with the fact that the French (with the exception of some maritime trade skirmishes in the 1790s and a few Vichyists during the Second World War) have never confronted the United States militarily, it has been odd to see such fully formed opprobrium spring apparently spontaneously from the American psyche.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of the recent outbursts of anti-Gallicism is that they erupted at all. France, after all, is not a country that most Americans care about very much. The era seems long past when the nineteenth-century Boston writer Thomas Appleton could claim that "Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris": at the time, the quote seemed so apt that it was cited by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and purloined—twice—by Oscar Wilde. 7 Appleton, in temporary flight from his Boston Unitarian upbringing, is said to have shed his virginity in France, which may account for his nostalgic enthusiasm. Even more remote in affective—as opposed to chronological—time, is the France of those later Americans on the emotional lam, the F. Scott Fitzgeralds, Henry Millers, and Ernest Hemingways. Hemingway’s mythic "liberation" of the Ritz bar in Paris in 1944 8 was a mixture of hommage and looting that probably seems simply bizarre to the contemporary American mind. What’s so great about the bar of a Paris hotel? And wasn’t it wrong to drink all that booze?

In fact, the allure of a Henry Miller or even a Tom Appleton on either side of the Atlantic stems from the same root: the glamour of estrangement from the norms of American life. In this sense, France is not so much anti-American as the anti-America, a condition that provides an ironic spin to Appleton’s sense of who or what constituted "good" Americans. American Gallicists, despite their celebrity, generally mask a different, less charitable view of France, more generally held and of similar antiquity. Three generations ago, Howard Mumford Jones, one of the few to have attempted a serious study of American attitudes toward France, writing of attitudes to France in the early years of the Republic just as the Lost Generation began its occupation of Paris, noted the "cosmopolitan spirit" of those Americans for whom "things French came to possess social prestige," against whom were ranged those American Protestants whose "sense of religious difference" carried with it "a suspicion of French morality, of French infidelity, and of French Catholicism." He further identified a third American position that "the Americans, and the middleclass Americans in particular, have developed a...belief concerning the French which has been powerful between the two people...the idea that the French are predominantly a fickle and unreliable people." 9

All of this seemed to resurface in the run-up to the recent war, even the assertive Protestantism of the new "prayerful" White House and the president’s publicly held belief that the United States "was called to bring God’s gift of liberty to every human being in the world"—a belief that the French writer Regis Debray viewed as creating "a politics that is at bottom theological and as old as Pope Gregory VII." 10

Debray’s rather restrained criticism of U.S. war plans in the New York Times elicited screams of anguish from bien-pensant bloggers such as the political commentator Andrew Sullivan, who managed to perceive in it "slurs" that "were as sickening as they were shallow." 11 Sullivan’s early morning overreaction (he posted his comments on his web page at 2:48 A.M. on the day Debray’s article appeared) is witness to the fact that the prime catalyst of anti-Gallicism among Americans is the appearance of anti-Americanism, real or otherwise, among the French. With the my-way-or-the-highway polity that has ruled in Washington under the present administration, anti-Americanism has been redefined to mean any position that is not actively pro-American. Nonetheless, there is a major strain of French anti-Americanism that is as crude and pointless as anything dished up by Goldberg, Sullivan, or the congressional food mandarins. Perhaps surprisingly therefore, the most interesting discussions of this longstanding phenomenon have recently issued from France. Coupled with some fine recent French meditations on the role of American power in the world, it would seem that, beneath the mudslinging, there is some serious thought going on.

Brilliant Mischief
Philippe Roger, the author of works ranging from studies of the Enlightenment to Roland Barthes, makes brilliant mischief from the very first words of his "genealogy" of French anti-Americanism, taking as his epigraph the words of George Washington’s Farewell Address, as endorsed by Tocqueville: "The nation which indulges towards another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or its affection...." 12 The mischief, of course, is that whereas Washington was talking about America, about avoiding the entanglement of "our peace and prosperity in the toils of European Ambition, Rivalship, Interest, Humour or Caprice," 13 Roger is tilting at France, whose animosity toward America, he shows, predates both countries’ revolutions. Also mischievous in its implications is the obverse of the enthrallment due to "habitual hatred"— the slavery that follows from "habitual fond ness." If hating America is bad, is it still possible to love it too much? If Roger’s intent is to discomfit his fellow French intellectuals, his choice of Washington’s words might also bother America’s friends, not least the British Atlanticists whose support allowed the Bush administration to proclaim the establishment of the "coalition of the willing."

This enlisting of the nexus of love and hate, of slavery to opposing passions, is an exhilarating way of launching a study of attitudes, of liberating the atavism of animosities from the contingencies of events and circumstances. Roger argues that the roots of French anti-Americanism lie in the doubts of Enlightenment science that the New World was a viable one at all. Had it emerged too recently from the waters of the biblical Flood? Were its plants and animals merely stunted, pale versions of the vigorous strains of the Old World? Was there anything there worth colonizing at all? The eighteenth-century "dispute of the New World" raged between such French or Francophone America-skeptics as the Comte de Buffon and Cornelius de Pauw on the one hand, and American intellectuals including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton on the other; the idea that this debate shaped a symbolic, as well as scientific, sense of America, has been posited before, quite recently by James W. Ceaser, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. 14 (Ceaser’s sense of the term "America" having become [almost] merely a symbolic structure led him to contemplate using the word Derrida-style, sous rature— that is, crossed out—to remind readers of how arbitrary this construction had become.)

However, where Ceaser’s mission, ultimately, is to answer America’s enemies, Roger is addressing his fellow citizens, the French, in whose midst and milieu he lives and works. Roger sees constructed, generation by generation, successive layers of misprision, what he terms a "stratification of negative discourses" that have created a French "tradition" of anti-Americanism that requires tracing back, through its generations, to its founding ancestors of the eighteenth century: hence, Roger’s depiction of his work as a "genealogy." Roger’s mission is to understand this family tree of prejudice and, thereby, to correct error.

This talk of symbols and discourses does not lead Roger to neglect the material elements of the Franco-American political relationship. It is part of his success that he sees the big picture, elegantly passing from the "battle of representations" of America between Thomas Jefferson, during his Paris sojourn, and Buffon, de Pauw, and the like, to a moving evocation of the three days’ mourning that the revolutionary government decreed for Benjamin Franklin, to the ruptures of the Terror, with Thomas Paine in jail and intergovernmental relations in rapid decline. Jefferson’s faulty classification of the giant sloth Megalonyx as a carnivorous catlike beast—a sort of representational riposte, says Roger, to European denigration of the timid American tiger—quickly folds, in a few lines, into the real-world tensions of the diplomatic row in the 1790s over attempts to recruit Americans to fight in France’s wars and the "undeclared" trade war between the U.S. Navy and French privateers. In Roger’s steady account, the gulf between the war of representations among scientists and the shooting war in the Atlantic suddenly becomes smaller (although Roger makes Megalonyx even more feline than Jefferson asserted by referring to it as "megalolynx"). Buffon’s "degeneracy" thesis, in its successive and transforming iterations, becomes a psychological and cultural thread that begins to pull events, as well as attitudes, together.

Many in Roger’s cast of French anti-Americans are familiar, including Baudelaire, Stendhal, Charles Maurras, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean Baudrillard. (During the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore’s political antagonists, who mocked his choice of Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir as his favorite novel should have picked up on the jibe in the book, noted by Roger, that "tyranny of opinion" was "as idiotic in small French towns as in the United States of America.") The flashpoints in the development of French attitudes are familiar, too—the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the Great Depression, Vietnam—but Roger has a way of de-familiarizing them that must be unsettling to his French readers. Thus the Civil War for contemporary French opinion, no less than for later Confederate nostalgists, was the war of Northern aggression, a project of economic domination in which the slavery issue was merely a fig leaf. The popular furor in France against the Spanish-American War (the French government was more moderate, Roger says) went further than condemnation of a strategic conflict launched on flimsy pretexts (Remember the Maine!) and generated an image of American power (beginning with the Civil War) waging a new kind of terrifying war and sweeping all before it. This uproar’s cultural consequences were everywhere to be seen: anti-American feuilletons—Gallic dime novels, in effect— showcased Yankee perfidy while journalists and publicists denounced it. The year of the war, 1898, was, says Roger, the catalyst of French anti-Americanism, when popular opinion of all political stripes was united in condemnation and created a discourse that imprinted itself on the subsequent generation. By the 1930s, all of the "syntagma"— the syntactic elements—of French anti-Americanism had been formed, according to Roger, since when the resulting discourse has simply fed off itself.

Roger returns at the end of his absorbing, essential book to the lines of George Washington quoted in his epigraph and to a corollary from Engels: "No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations." 15 As at the outset, and in the context of this work, the statement points in two directions. Roger sincerely wishes to free his fellow French men from the "masochistic sluggishness, routine resentment, and passionless Pavlovism" that the discourse of anti-Americanism inflicts on French thought. But Engels’ sentiment also suggests the basis on which a principled critique of American policies might begin in France: the substance of actions and events, and not the inheritance of bad ideas.

Fools Swatted and Enemies Slain
JeanFrançois Revel is the rara avis of French intellectual life: an unashamed economic liberal in the land of Colbert and dirigisme. He has pursued the identification of American-style democracy with fundamental political and economic freedoms throughout his long and distinguished career. His latest book, L’obsession antiaméricaine, covers some of the same ground as Roger and reaches similar conclusions. At a limber 300 pages, half the size of the Roger volume, it may be more widely read, which would be something of a shame. Revel’s strengths and weaknesses derive from the same source: he is a pamphleteer at heart, rather than a systematic thinker and scholar, and his instincts are generally polemical and journalistic. Where Roger’s heart is heavy, Revel is angry. He purports to admit that constructive criticism of the United States is legitimate, but it is difficult to discern just what type of criticism would be sufficiently constructive to gain his acceptance. Little of it is cited in the book, to be sure: instead, fools are swatted and enemies slain. Despite his acknowledgment that French anti-Americanism embraces the right as well as the left, Revel’s principal antagonists are the intellectual left, the apologists for communism, the unilateralists, the pacifists—all those who failed to understand America’s role, in his view, in promoting worldwide economic liberty, democracy, and freedom. Even if you start out—as I did, in general— agreeing with Revel’s thesis, after a while you start rooting for the other side because, for all of its vigor, L’obsession antiaméricaine swiftly becomes tiresome as Revel essentially equates anti-Americanism with a failure of consciousness, preventing his opponents from embracing the only rational position: pro-Americanism. Revel also spends too much time settling old scores and revisiting past conflicts. Sometimes his antagonisms feel like padding—as when he criticizes the former foreign minister, Hubert Védrine, for the coinage, with respect to America, of the term "hyperpower": far from denoting a new level of geopolitical influence, Revel suggests that Védrine is unaware that, etymologically, "hyper" (Greek) and "super" (Latin) are the same. (Of course, Védrine was proceeding by analogy to the French "hypermarkets" that began to surpass the old-style "supermarkets" in the 1970s.) Also, at times Revel’s research seems spotty, as when he attributes, without bibliographic reference, the phrase "the universal shout of anti-Americanism" to the eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope. In fact, Pope said no such thing: the Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded instance of "anti-Americanism" dates from 1844, one hundred years after the poet’s death. (Pope did not even use the phrase "universal shout," although Shakespeare and Milton did.) Still, it is a lively read and fun at times.

The historian and demographer Emmanuel Todd has produced a critical analysis of what he views as the long-term prospective decline of the United States that is free of the taints that Roger and Revel have identified in the long French tradition of anti-Americanism. 16 Todd believes that the war on terrorism is a sideshow, but one born of a policy misdiagnosis rather than resulting from the malign forces seen everywhere by the anti-Americans. The argument runs as follows: because terrorism is permanent, the war on terrorism results in a condition of permanent war. However, the demographic evidence is that the progressive growth in literacy and decline in birthrate in those countries most associated with terrorism will eliminate the problem in time, for instance leading to a "general mental modernization" of Iran, despite decades of bloodshed. America’s engagement at this level is phony action, which "through its level of intensity and risk, henceforth situates itself somewhere between real war and the videogame." For Todd, however, the roots of America’s long-term decline lie in those factors that it can not control—the growth of rival economies (a facet of globalization). While not anti-American, Todd writes to give encouragement to a "we," the non-American peoples. His counsel to them—us—is to follow the example of the "old" America that formed the basis for the country’s success in the twentieth century and avoid militaristic entanglements that do not concern them.

In other words, what George Washington said, before we started fighting over dessert.

Notes

1. "Baked Alaska" and "Rumford," The Oxford Companion to Food, ed. Alan Davidson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); "Omelette norvégienne" and "Rumford," Larousse Gastronomique, ed. Robert J. Courtine (Paris: Larousse, 1984); Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 726; Lately Thomas, Delmonico’s: A Century of Splendor (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967), p. 191.

2. Sheryl Gay Stolberg, "An Order of Fries, Please, But Do Hold the French," New York Times, March 12, 2003; Stolberg, "Congress’s War on France Is Just Starting," New York Times, March 16, 2003.

3. Jonah Goldberg, "Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys From Hell," National Review Online, April 16, 1999, at www.nationalreview.com; "Round Springfield," The Simpsons, episode 2F32, FOXTV, April 30, 1995.

4. Frank DiGiacomo, "Chef Eric Ripert Says the French Feel Our Froid," New York Observer, March 17, 2003.

5. "House of Windsor," The Oxford Companion to British History, ed. John Cannon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); "A History of the German Shepherd Dog," at www.dogtraining.co.uk; Allan M. Winkler, "From Liberty Cabbage to Liberating Iraq," Boston Globe, March 9, 2003.

6. William F. Buckley, "Anti-French Frustrations," National Review Online, March 14, 2003.

7. Robert Andrews, Mary Biggs, and Michael Seidel, et al., The Columbia World of Quotations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

8. Evelyne BlochDano, "Les écrivains du Ritz," Magazine littéraire, January 2003.

9. Howard Mumford Jones, America and French Culture 1750–1848, first published 1927 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973), pp. 546, 569–71, emphasis in original. The American attitudes that Jones observed are strongly reminiscent of both the Francophobia and Francophilia of the British in the eighteenth century. See generally, Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

10. Howard Fineman, "Bush and God," Newsweek, March 10, 2003; Regis Debray, "The French Lesson," New York Times, February 23, 2003.

11. Andrew Sullivan, "The New York Times and Terror," The Daily Dish, February 24, 2003, at www.andrewsullivan.com.

12. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1, trans. Henry Reeve and Francis Bower, ed. Phillips Bradley (New York: Knopf, 1985), p. 233.

13. "Farewell Address," September 19, 1796, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799, vol. 35, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931), p. 234.

14. James W. Ceaser, Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

15. Roger attributes this statement to Karl Marx, but it appears to belong to Engels’ "Polish Proclamation" (1874). Marx, however, wrote something similar in his "Confidential Communication on Bakunin" to the International Workingmen’s Association (1870): "A nation that enslaves another forges its own chains." It is the sentiment that counts.

16. Todd is not alone in serving up sophisticated but critical analysis that eschews traditional demonization of America; see also Pierre Hassner and Justin Vaïsse, Washington et le monde: dilemmes d’une superpuissance (Paris, CERI/Autrement, 2003).

*Bill Grantham is the author of "Some Big Bourgeois Brothel": Contexts for France’s Culture Wars with Hollywood (University of Luton Press, 2000).

[Go to interactive discussion forum]

You will need the Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on your computer to access full text PDF article.

 back

 
Journal Subscription