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Philippe Roger, The American Enemy. A Story of French Anti-Americanism (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, $35.00, 518 pages, ISBN: 0-226-72368-2)—Richard Davis, Université Charles de Gaulle - Lille III



Ask almost any random group of French people if they consider themselves to be pro- or anti-American and the answer would almost certainly reveal an overwhelming majority in favour of the latter. No matter how many McDonalds hamburgers are eaten in France, Levi’s jeans worn, or American films watched, anti-Americanism seems today to have become a constant, a part of what makes France what it is. This is the question that Philippe Roger’s The American Enemy: A Story of Anti-Americanism asks: “Why are the French so anti-American?” [ix]


For the author this is perplexing. There is an “extreme paradox” [ix], he argues: France may never have actually fought militarily against the United States, unlike the British, Germans, Spanish or Italians, but it is in France that anti-Americanism is most strident. Thus, in his introduction, he defines anti-Americanism as “a long war of words (and images) that France has been waging against the United States” [xv]. His terms of reference, his “fundamental choice of approach” [xvii], are also clearly given at the outset when he promises to “keep to the disagreeable side of Franco-American relations, where the punches are thrown and the low blows dealt.” “We will,” he promises, “hang out dirty washing that has never seen the end of the wash” [xv], and hang out the dirty washing he certainly does. At the outset he warns that any “kinder, gentler readers of America will [...] be relegated to the sidelines of our investigation or treated obliquely” [xvii]. In this, his book lives up to its title. The rare mentions given to any possible evidence of Franco-American friendship are shown simply as a counterfoil, there to be ridiculed. The Statue of Liberty, for example, offered by France to the United States, is simply a reminder that “there is nothing so devastating as an unwanted gift” [102].


This approach, however, raises problems. Firstly, should we talk of “anti-Americanism” at all? Roger reminds his readers that the term has relatively recent origins, having first been used in 1948, and only entered the Petit Robert twenty years later. Roger may quote Sartre’s assertion that “I am not anti-American at all. I don’t even know what the word means” [xii] and Serge Halimi’s view that Antiaméricanisme is “one word too many,” contrived by “rapid philo-Americans,” a word which is “not innocent” and which should be “eradicated” [xii]. But Roger dismisses such arguments in the space of a paragraph without ever really answering the challenges they raise. The argument of Régis Debray that his “anti-Americanism” (which he puts in inverted commas) does not mean being against a whole people is similarly rejected: when Debray writes “The Americanism I am opposed to is not America any more than totalitarianism was Soviet Russia” [452] this is thrown out by Roger as “mental acrobatics” [452].


In trying to reduce a population that is fast approaching the 300 million mark to some reductive essence of Americanism, and which can thus be opposed and disapproved of by some anti-Americanism, he has simplified what is a more complex and varied relationship. This is not to deny the strength in France of the deep-seated negative caricatures held of the United States. French supporters of anti-Americanism may, Roger accepts, be sympathetic to “Americanism’s American ‘victims”’ [113]: the native Americans, the Afro-Americans and other minorities, the dispossessed whites of the South or to the victims of American state oppression such as those of McCarthyism. They may value the various American countercultures of the twentieth century, the “other America” [113]. None of this, however, according to Roger, detracts from the broad consensus in France that has been built up around anti-Americanism. Indeed, Roger argues that the “taste for the American counterculture is anti-Americanism carried on by other means” [443]. Yet surely we should accept that we can reject some aspects of the United States but not others. Roger may ridicule the idea that French hosts may indulge in America-bashing in front of their American guests and then add, “we didn’t mean you” [xvi], but it is just this complexity that is part and parcel of any relationship between two countries.


Roger’s opening page quotes Washington’s view that “The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave to its animosity or to its affection” [v and 453]. No doubt. But it is the presence of both, often within the same mind and certainly within the same country, that needs to be stressed. In limiting himself to the “dirty washing” the reader comes away with the impression that the whole of France is riddled with exclusively anti-American sentiments from top to bottom. Although Roger openly states that this is the extent of his investigation the danger is nonetheless there. This can only be doubly concerning in this English translation of the original French. Anglophone, and particularly American, readers will only have their stereotypes of the French confirmed by this work and their own Gallophobia reinforced.


We can also doubt the relative importance of the phenomenon of anti-Americanism in France that the author gives it. It may, as Roger argues, have become a consensual opinion as early as the late nineteenth century (Roger argues that it was the “most commonly shared idea in France in the 1890s” [xi]), and it may have continued to “enjoy” this position up to the present day. But there have surely been other more pressing feelings and phobias. Of course, these are beyond the scope of the present work but Anglophobia, while having its ups and downs, could be a violently held sentiment and surely anti-German sentiment must at times have been a more immediate concern than American cultural incursions. Roger argues that the term “Yankee […] would hold sway over the entire twentieth century as an inexhaustible nickname for the American enemy,” that “Boches and Rosbifs have long been relegated to the French museum of invective (while) Yankee is still carrying the torch of its career in polemics” [164]. Specialists of Franco-German and Franco-British relations may find grounds to disagree. Equally, France has never been alone in its anti-Americanism, perhaps it has not even been the greatest international purveyor of this phenomenon. After all, even the United Kingdom with its so-called “Special Relationship” has never been entirely immune from these same feelings.


This overwhelmingly negative portrayal of French opinions of the United States and of its importance in French life can be explained in part by the book’s focus on the intellectuals. Roger is, no doubt, right to argue that in France this group has an influence in wider society that is greater than in most other countries, particularly the United States, which, as Roger again rightly argues, is in itself one of the sources feeding French anti-Americanism. Whatever their prestige and influence, French intellectuals are not, however, France, and it is regrettable that other veins of French anti-Americanism have not been fully exploited or explained here. The political and diplomatic dimension is treated unequally. The post-1918 peace settlements are given a good deal of attention yet the Vichy period and its anti-American propaganda hardly gets a mention. De Gaulle’s very brief presence is explained by the somewhat cursory argument that he was “not anti-American” [336] and those anti-American aspects of his thinking and policies are passed over.


Nonetheless, the value of Roger’s book lies in its detailed record of French anti-Americanism and the ways in which the various threads (political, philosophical, cultural, artistic, gastronomic, intellectual etc.) that make this up became intertwined. In response to his question “just why are the French so anti-American” Roger points to the need to take the long view, tracing such sentiments back over time to the first European contacts with the “New World.” The essential part of this book is, therefore, a historical record of the development and accumulation of these various forms of French anti-Americanism, displaying the ways in which each generation contributed to “a long drawn-out sedimentation” [1] of layer upon layer of anti-American sentiments that has, over time, become set. Successive chapters deal with the early naturalists’ denigration of the American continent (even to the extent of the inferior weight of their natural species [9]) and its “fetid and boggy terrain” [7]. Next came an aesthetic contempt for the Americans’ “rudimentary social mores, (their) indifference to intellectual pursuits, and [...] utter incomprehension of art” [37]; the United States was ridiculed by Talleyrand as a country of “thirty-two religions and only one dish to eat” [414] while Stendhal had one of his characters complain “over there, no opera” [35]. Alongside Stendhal, Baudelaire, Verne and Manet, many other lesser-known writers, playwrights and artists are put forward to fill out Roger’s detailed and broad tableau. In the early 1900s, his attention shifts to the contribution made by economists, sociologists and political scientists before turning to the philosophers and writers of the inter-war and post-war years. Although this stops short of the present-day the reader will hardly find it difficult to bring the story up to date.


Roger’s second main argument is that, from the late nineteenth century, France may have been tearing itself apart for all sorts of other reasons but it was “totally consensual” [268] in its anti-Americanism. He writes:


At the high point of civil discord in a divided France, anti-Americanism was the only “French passion” that calmed the other passions, curbed antagonisms, and reconciled the staunchest adversaries. This reconciliation at the United States’ expense—or, at least, the cease-fire between the different French factions in the face of a supposedly common enemy—would remain a constant of political and intellectual life in France. It is impossible to understand French anti-Americanism and its placid permanence without a sense of its social and national benefit in manufacturing consensus [...]. It was only logical that anti-Americanism, an antidote to internal quarrels, should spring “from the days when the French did not like one another.” At least they now knew whom to hate together [141].


From various shades of the Catholic right to the republican and socialist left, French politics was, according to Roger, united in this all-encompassing passion for anti-Americanism.


Culturally, aesthetically, politically or for a dozen other reasons, the United States became the favourite target of French attacks: American women were “cold, inaccessible, untouchable. Winning them over was impossible; seducing them, unthinkable” [187]. The creation of an “anti-kissing league” in one American university is put forward by one source [190] while another, taking a quite different tack, complains of an American girl who “lifts her short skirt up to her face [...] dances the most Negro steps, in white underpants. The underpants twist and gape. I see tufts, her shady crotch, her genitals. I get a joyless eyeful” [192]. No matter what the American woman did she would meet with disapproval. American magnates and trusts were condemned as the sources of globalization long before the present day. Other French observers rejected America’s modernity and new technologies—as late as 1952 one even went so far as to complain that the American Frigidaire was un-French and unnecessary [375]. Politically, the Americans’ participation in the First World War was seen as tardy and incomplete while their record in the management of the inter-war financial and political order was condemned as being unquestionably anti-French. By the inter-war years, according to Roger, French anti-Americanism was marked by its “autarchy [...], its increasingly self-referential logic [...], its tendency toward self-sufficiency [...]; it had become stabilized into an anti-American “culture” [and] it was now self-starting” [268-69]. After 1945, the Marshall Plan was seen by many in France as an attempt to put France under an American yoke rather than an attempt to help them lift themselves up. One French journalist exclaimed “we will have no doughnut-making classes” [411] in a double-headed attack on what he perceived as the American dumbing down of the French university system and their assault on French cuisine. All this, put together, makes up what the author terms a “sack of bile” of anti-Americanism [145].


As is so often the case in such works, this study of French attitudes and images of America tells us as much about France itself as it does about Franco-American relations, with America playing a valuable role of the Other against which France’s own identity could be better defined. The dust jacket makes the point when it says: “Anti-Americanism is a cultural pillar for the French, America an idea that the country and its culture have long defined themselves against.” The picture painted here of France, though, is hardly a flattering one. The author, who we are told has spent several years in the United States, gives the impression that on returning to his native land he has set out to rectify the deformations in this blackened French vision of the United States, that his compatriots need to be cured of what he regards as a problem.


Anti-Americanism, he writes in his introduction, is a “strange cultural object” [xi], “it is rife with irrationality” [xvi]. Many others, of course, agree with this vision. For Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, it is “odd” that so many French politicians and diplomats have such in-built animosity towards the United States, something which he has described as a French “neurosis.” The International Herald Tribune’s view that anti-Americanism is France’s “self-inflicted national illness” is given on the dust jacket. Roger himself concludes by writing: “what if anti-Americanism were now nothing but a mental enslavement inflicted by the French on themselves—a masochistic laziness, a routine of resentment?” before hoping that such French “vices” may soon have had their day [453]. Of course, none of this addresses the validity of any or all of the aspects of French criticisms of America. Instead it is regarded as an exclusively French “problem” that they will have to deal with.


The bleak impression of anti-Americanism as a disease that this book leaves on the reader is reinforced by the medical metaphors with which it is littered. A prominent place is given to books with titles such as The American Cancer where America is “the seat or the spread of the evil” and Americanism a “sickness” [296-7]. Roger’s own style reinforces this impression by writing of anti-Americanism and “its propensity to self-procreate [which] immunizes it against the jolts of reality” [453]. Elsewhere the use made of phylloxera [127], the disease that decimated the French wine industry, as a symbol of the wider American threat is significant. The disease of anti-Americanism, like Phylloxera, needs an “antidote” [141].


Side by side with the images of disease are those of warfare. France and the United States may have never actually come to physical blows but their relationship, as portrayed here, is essentially one of conflict. The title itself sets the tone. In fighting against Spain in 1896 America was, in the thinking of many of the rabid anti-Americans presented by Roger, turning against its origins, fighting a “matricidal” war against Europe [148]. Others saw a “French ethnocide” at the hands of the Americans [126]. Military observers pointed to the growing strength of the United States, particularly in the naval field. Commercially the threat of American imports flooding the French market combined with the United States’ aggressive trade protectionism was highlighted. Again Roger only reinforces this image in his own words. By the mid-twentieth century, according to the author, it was a question of “The Americans’ way of life versus France’s mores: it was all-out war” [342].


That many things separate France and the United States is beyond doubt. Not least amongst these are the linguistic barriers that only serve to exacerbate an already difficult relationship and to make their mutual incomprehension all the more likely. The translation of Roger’s book in itself reveals some of these difficulties. The author, while he is often critical of the majority of French intellectuals for their inherent anti-Americanism and their refusal to try to understand the United States, is of course part of the same group and his text bears all the hallmarks of a style of writing that is typically French. Translating this for an English-speaking readership is no small task and the translator has undertaken this with considerable success (references to the “Cordial Entente” [175], however, is no less strange than describing rugby as “the French football” [202]).


Roger begins and ends his book with references to the French reactions to the attacks of 9/11. Soon after, French newspaper editorials, he remarks, were “filled with the usual America-bashing contributions, which greatly outnumbered the declarations of sympathy or solidarity” [x]. He emphasises those French observers of 9/11 who, while not condoning the attack, thought the Americans should best look at themselves to see what had brought this on them, those who thought they should “get the message [and] learn from the lesson” [xviii]. Roger’s argument that such observers “would be better off [...] asking themselves to what extent systematic anti-Americanism, French and otherwise, had had a hand in the global process of demonization that facilitates slippage from a war of words to a war of the worlds” [xviii] must surely be questioned.


Throughout the text America is presented as France’s “enemy.” If the introduction makes it clear that this is an exclusively anti-American record of French views the reader may, nonetheless, come away with the impression that this is the definitive French opinion of America. In the final paragraph the author makes a heartfelt plea that his book may have helped in the “demise” of anti-Americanism [453]. The original French version of this book may indeed have helped to open many French eyes to their deep-seated, possibly inherent, anti-Americanism; for an American audience however, this book runs the danger of convincing them that the French are all a thoroughly rotten lot. If anti-Americanism is the “disease” that it is sometimes portrayed as, then the English version of this book with its litany of virulent French anti-Americanism will do little to eradicate it, although it may well, as the author says in his last sentence, help to “enlighten” it [453].

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