France and the United States

Our American 'Enemies'

Are we enemies of the United States? Our colleague Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times claims that we are. He’s not the first one to think this, but he is one of the very first to aggressively say so. Many French people living in the United States—people who know their way around business, cultural, and show business circles—confirm that Americans feel they’re reacting to our hostility rather than provoking it.

It doesn’t matter exactly where the truth lies in all of this. But one thing is certain: The truth is not on Mr. Friedman’s side. Never, for instance, as he dares state, has France been in a position to compromise on a United Nations resolution that could have made Saddam Hussein back down and avoid war. Arguments like this will surely not contribute to mending fences between Paris and Washington, but mending fences is clearly not what Mr. Friedman wants.

The important thing is to note that even those Americans who are most wary about George W. Bush’s neo-conservative entourage believe that we French wish them ill. And strangely, this feeling grows as the situations in Baghdad and Jerusalem deteriorate.

Naturally, the core issue today is Iraq, which radically divides the two camps. It’s important to avoid confusion. There’s the period before and the period after the American intervention in Iraq. Every published study—academic or polemic—on the supposedly endemic anti-Americanism of the French dates from before the American intervention. Thus, these analyses and commentaries didn’t take into account the vast wave of solidarity with America that the French and other Europeans demonstrated when the World Trade Center was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.

Who even remembers that out-pouring of solidarity? It is as if, in the United States, they wanted to forget, in order to hate us. As if, in France, we were ashamed to have been “Americans too”—which we most definitely were for at least three to five months. As if, for both sides, today’s mutual detestation feeds on a denial of yesterday’s sympathies.

So let’s remind everybody once again: France was warmly pro-American during and after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. As, let’s note in passing, France was warmly pro-Israel from 1948 to 1970. This reminder of the past shows that feelings change as situations do. That there is no such thing as continuous exasperation, or traditional hostility. And that all the reasons produced for our supposed old anti-Americanism fall to pieces when you take the trouble to recall the outpourings of solidarity.

You might say that a thin skin makes for thin logic. The French have been exasperated to see their conduct dictated by “hyper-Yankees.” Just as the Spanish—I’ve heard this recently in Barcelona—are exasperated to have been forced to follow the French. This Spanish public opinion is all the more interesting because Spanish hostility toward the United States is the most active of all. Much more active than the hostility of the French! Survey: 92 percent of Spaniards are anti-American on the Iraq issue. Spectacle: If you watched the antiwar demonstrations, you got the impression that all of Spain took to the streets.

Let’s get down to core issues. On postwar Iraq, the positions of George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac are cynically complementary. The American refuses to give anyone—especially not the United Nations, especially not France—the slightest bit of command authority over the armed forces in Baghdad. The Frenchman, for his part, says merely that he will never send troops to Iraq and that the Iraqis should control their own country. Each leader is accommodating the other’s position. Beyond that, both want to rehabilitate the U.N.’s image without giving it much power. Everybody agrees and nobody has any illusions.
The accusations of anti-Americanism against the French are followed by the claim that the French harbor anti-Israel feelings. Here again, our American colleagues and their country’s information apparatus need to pay attention to what’s happening in the world at large and throughout Europe, especially in the Mediterranean countries. Newspapers in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece all espouse—with a disturbing unanimity—pro-Palestinian positions that sometimes, alas, include Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

If you consider the interior of Europe, France is far from being the country most aggressively sympathetic toward the Palestinians. In the eyes of American commentators, simultaneous opposition to Sharon and Bush equals hostility to the “U.S.-Zionist” entity. I’m not saying that such an interpretation is completely off base. I am saying that even if it is true, it doesn’t excuse the U.S. failure in pacifying in Baghdad, or the detours from the “road map” toward peace in Jerusalem. I note that the French are far from being the loudest in denouncing these two situations, even if the French do assert with uncommon vigor their independence from the United States.

France’s attitude has been celebrated throughout the Third World and, of course, in the Arab world—earning it an abundance of prestige but also diplomatic capital that it doesn’t seem to know how to use. This hesitation is justified. For a further deterioration of the already bad relations between the United States and France would pose the painful question of the very survival of the West.

It may be that the United States has not shown itself worthy or capable of ensuring the unity of a civilization whose laws have governed the world, at least for the last few centuries. But since a united Europe capable of taking over this mission hasn’t yet emerged, all we can do is hope that the American people will wake up and rapidly call a halt to these crude interventionist utopias carelessly dredged out of the Theodore Roosevelt tradition. Utopias that, in the words of an American diplomat, have made George W. Bush and his brain trust “lose their intelligence as they turned into ideologues.”