Thursday, October 10, 2002

In Praise of the French

The French have been getting some bad press lately, especially among conservative American commentators. In many cases, the criticism was well-deserved, but things may be changing.

Historically, the French have always criticized the US and what it saw as America’s unrefined, rather dim-witted population. On the whole, this wasn’t such a grave problem while the US remained a national power in the western hemisphere. But with its ascension to “hyperpuissance” status (to quote former French foreign minister Huber Védrine) during the twentieth century, French disdain for the boorish Americans only increased. Recent events, including Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, the close-fought 2000 presidential election and George Bush’s subsequent withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocols, the ABM Treaty and his refusal to sign on to the International Criminal Court, brought antagonistic feelings to a fever pitch.

With the events of September 11, one may have thought French antipathy would be on the wane. In fact, the opposite occurred as many in France went on an anti-American spree trotting out the old clichés about US imperialism and arrogance. Not a few commentators saw the attacks as the logical result of American foreign policy, and one author even went so far as to write a best-selling book claiming the attack on the Pentagon was a ruse on the part of the US government itself.

Not surprisingly, American commentators, especially conservative commentators but also some from the left, fired back. But it wasn’t just journalists and intellectuals mixing it up. Politicians and diplomats, many of whom should have known better (I’m thinking here of M. Védrine, Chris Patten, and a whole slew of political hacks warming the Parliamentary benches in my own Canadian homeland) descended into petty diatribes about unilateralism and war-mongering.

Certainly, this is how things appeared in the months following 9/11. But this isn’t the whole picture. Indeed, the real story on the French may be a bit more complex.

First we need to consider the frontline of approbation ranged against the US: journalists. While the French press, most notably left-leaning Le Monde, spilled a fair amount of ink chastizing America, on the whole the most vicious anti-American slurs came not from the French but English papers such as the Independent and the Guardian. The level of vitriol spewing from the leftist British press, with its odd combination of snooty condescension and low-class cheek, far outdid the continent. While the French resorted time and again to their typical intellectual arrogance, the English seemed unrestrained in their ability to manufacture lies and misrepresent facts.

On the political front, Védrine and his government may not have been unqualified supporters of the US, but at least the French voters had the good sense to send the Socialists packing in this year’s parliamentary elections. The same can’t be said about the Germans. While France elected a centre-right government running on a platform of increased defence spending, lower taxes and improved national security, Germans returned the moribund centre-left coalition to power in last month’s national elections. Despite Gerhard Schroder’s dismal economic record and Germany’s spiral into financial distress, Schroder was able to crawl back to power by stoking the fires of anti-Americanism.

And here is where France appears in its best light. As I’ve noted in the past, Schroder’s anti-American campaign served not only to offend the US and threaten the decades old friendship between Washington and the German Republic, it also undermined his position in Europe leaving Germany isolated and internationally weak. By comparison, France maintained a cautious approach with the US, offering guarded support for military action in Iraq, but only under the auspices of the United Nations. Though this may appear as little more than diplomatic posturing on Paris’ part, it also demonstrates a government aware of its country’s national interests. France is at best a middle ranking military power, but it still holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and it knows that its best means for maintaining an international presence is to promote the UN on the world stage. At the same time, it recognizes the importance of cordial relations with the US, knowing better than to follow Schroder’s irresponsible lead.

The point is that, however exasperating it can be, France has a sense of how a nation behaves. Despite its penchant for third world dictators, communists and amoral intellectuals, the current French government is not relying on outright anti-American foolishness to bolster its support among its citizens. And in this regard, domestic affairs mirror the international scene. Germany is not only turning into something of a political backwater, but its economic and domestic situation is deteriorating rapidly. At the same time, the French government is defending France’s economic interests at every turn. Indeed, when EU finance ministers criticized France for threatening the caps placed on national debts under the EU Stability Pact, French Finance Minister, Francis Mer told his counterparts that his government’s national goals, including raising military spending and honoring President Chirac’s electoral promises to reduce taxes, were more important.

Now this may sound like an irresponsibly French reaction that will increase the national debt, but in fact, it demonstrates France’s re-emerging national will to be economically competitive (the lower taxes) and militarily self-respecting. And as Anatole Kaletsky has argued in the Times Online, it now looks as though France will “supplant Germany as the most important economy in Europe.” While Germany stagnates economically and dithers politically, France is moving slowly but surely ahead. For similar views on Germany’s current malaise, I would refer the reader to Christopher Caldwell’s recent article in the Weekly Standard.

One final note. I referred earlier to French intellectual arrogance and the perennial French view that Americans are dim-witted. This too may be changing. It’s long been the case that Americans have neglected more cerebral studies in favor of pragmatic pursuits. As a result, accusations of boorishness coming from the vast parade of French philosophic and revolutionary thinkers has often gone unanswered by the practical Americans. So it was a bit of a surprise when intelligent Americans, especially intelligent conservatives, hit back this time around. What may be even more surprising to Americans is that the French themselves were not entirely impressed by the knee-jerk anti-Americanism in their midst. I’ve already mentioned Jean-François Revel’s book critiquing anti-American ideology, to which can be added another by French professor Philippe Roger, entitled The American Enemy. Roger, like Revel, looks to find the “root causes” of anti-Americanism in France, holding it to account while highlighting its irrational aspects. That these books are among the top sellers in France is an excellent sign. That some of the best French intellectuals are now liberals in the classical sense and no longer slaves to the Marxist vulgate, suggests things may be changing. Just as the rise of an educated and philosophically conversant conservative movement had a lasting impact on the United States in recent decades, a similarly well-educated and thoughtful liberal tradition seems to be growing in France. It’s unfortunate that Germany seems unable to follow the French lead.

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