America on Their Minds

America on Their Minds

Mini Teaser: The subject of Franco-American relations is "vast," in the Gaullian usage of the word, and for most Americans vastly boring.

by Author(s): H.J. Kaplan

The subject of Franco-American relations is "vast," in the Gaullian usage of the word, and for most Americans vastly boring.  When the interminable General said "vast," pointing his huge beak downward at his interlocutor and dropping his voice an octave to produce his famous gouaille, or mocking tone, he meant that the subject or problem in question was insoluble, or long since dismissed from his august consideration, which came to the same thing; and that in any event it was idiotic of you to bring the matter up.  On this issue (and it was by no means the only one) the allegedly anti-American French leader and the American people were profoundly attuned to each other.

That was a long and benighted time ago.  In those days, well into the 1970s, in fact, our State Department and Congress regularly and conscientiously enquired into the solidity and quality of our relations with the Western Europeans, which were generally quite good, and in particular with the French, which were problematical, to say the least.  We even ran "morale surveys," as they were called, to measure how we were faring in the Cold War competition with the Soviets for European public opinion.  From all of which it transpired that the French, no less than the other Europeans, saw themselves as incorrigibly part of "the free world," even if it curled their lips to use the term, and stubbornly preferred its way of life, even when--especially when--they voted to strengthen the parliamentary and social influence of Soviet agents in their country.  Here was an apparent paradox to furrow the brows of our leadership and our pundits in Washington; and it was sometimes grist for the mills of politicians seeking to show that the party in power was neglecting our moral and psychological defenses in Europe.  There was even a flap from time to time, as during the Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign in 1960, when one of these morale surveys was inadvertently leaked (by me, alas) to the little band of famished newsmen who hung around the American embassy in Bonn.

Still, I cannot recall that this sort of thing ever aroused much interest in the United States outside what is now called the Beltway.  To be sure, there has always been a hard core of francophiles among us, artists and writers, professors, gourmets, not to mention the Order of the Cincinnati and the high society ladies who organize festivities to raise money for the restoration of Versailles, where the golden legend of our Eternal Alliance began: Franklin and Vergennes, Washington and Lafayette; and the fashion buffs, of course, and those who make pilgrimages to Giverny for Monet's water lilies, to Deauville for the races, to Cannes for the film festival, et tout et tout.  But these are elite elements.  For the rest, with the exception of brief periods of contention between our governments on trade policy, say, or on the role of NATO outside Europe, I think it fair to say that the French have enjoyed (or suffered from) a sort of benign neglect in America; and that this state of affairs promises, in the foreseeable future, to endure.

In short, since the departure of de Gaulle, and a fortiori since the Soviet Empire has begun to crumble from within, we Americans have become increasingly "Gaullian" on the issue of Franco-American relations, i.e., increasingly bored.  Whereas the French, in case you haven't noticed, the arrogant, witty, and oh so intelligent French, are now suddenly in the position of the General's interlocutors--they can't stop bringing the matter up.

For this last there are good and obvious reasons--and they all lead the French inexorably back to the old suspicion, first voiced by Tocqueville, that our Revolution might have something to tell them about their future; even more, perhaps, than 1789 and All That.  Why?  Because they have finally made their entry into the modern world, decolonized, adopted a constitution of "presidential" format, like ours, kicked the Marxist habit, if not yet quite the habit of thinking of politics in the grandiose Welt-historisch manner they picked up from the Germans generations ago.  And this above all: they have discovered economic growth, the heaven and hell of it, and in the process been mediatised, as they like to say, and become enamored of gadgets and popular culture.  Precisely what Georges Duhamel(1) and Franc[ced]ois Mauriac and so many others--the traditionalist Academy and the avant-garde forming a popular front on this issue--warned would happen if the French turned away from their glorious traditions and went whoring after those strange American gods.

The upshot of all this is that our most ancient ally is greatly, indeed strangely, preoccupied with us at the moment, principally because of our cultural presence, which has increased exponentially since World War II.  So, on one side in any event, we have the makings of a famous romance.  But there is a hitch, alas, as in the old Jewish joke about the matchmaker who eloquently persuades the tailor's son to marry Rothchild's daughter.  Well, that's half the job done, he says, leaving the tailor's shop.  The fact is that the current French passion for America and things American is unrequited.  Not because we have taken it into our heads to dislike the French, but--worse--because we haven't.  As we are constantly being told by our pundits and pollsters, who after all cannot all be wrong all the time, we are an increasingly contentious and self-obsessed people.  And the odd thing about this imbalance, this unrequited passion, is that it seems--at least at this moment of writing--hardly resented by my normally prideful and sarcastic French friends, unless their resentment be simmering away somewhere beneath the surface, beyond the range of my aging antennae, which I rather doubt.

To be sure, the phenomenon is sometimes ironically noted, as when someone produces an opinion poll showing that only 2 percent of the American people can name the French prime minister (the estimable Rocard) or that 3 percent think that it matters whether the French approve or disapprove our policy in Central America.  But this sort of thing has come to be accepted as a fact of nature, as it were, a consequence of relative size and power and of the incuriosity and imperious ignorance of detail which, in the French historical memory, is the very privilege, precisely, of size and power.  Just as we, on our side, have come to take it for granted when we cross the Atlantic and observe how assiduously the descendants of Racine and Couperin, of Rabelais and Voltaire, follow the adventures of Bill Cosby and Roseanne on their television sets, spend their time and treasure on our films, books, records, toys, designer jeans, and gadgets, so that it is no longer surprising to encounter Parisians who (thanks to the extraordinary erudition of certain French broadcasters) know more about our popular culture, especially about our films and our popular music, than we do, if only because we do not share--how could we?--their unrequited passion for ourselves.

The foregoing lucubrations might well have occurred to anyone who, having spent half his adult life in France, returns to Paris and finds the children of his friends besotted by our sitcoms and computer games, filled with Hollywood lore and eager to tell him who was on the drums when Johnny Hodges and Duke Ellington did "Back To Back" and "Side By Side."  There's precedent for this sort of thing, of course, since nothing comes from nothing, unless it be God; and I am suddenly reminded of a bony-faced old man with curiously Mongolian eyes whom we found hiding in Tunis in 1943, when the Germans gave up in North Africa.  His name was Andr[acu]e Gide.  He was brought to Algiers, where I was working in Psychological Warfare, and his first question to me was about Dashiel Hammett.  How was he?  And where?  And was he not our greatest writer of prose?  And then, too, we had Sartre and a swarm of sub-Sartreans touting Dos Passos, Faulkner, and Hemingway right after the war.  But all that was still in the realm of High Culture, even if it was informed--in accordance with the Sartrean or some other ideology--with adversarial intent.  To be anti-American then--and then was the time, if ever--was hardly to be out of step with American art and literature!  The age of the electronic media and the bandes dessines (the comic strip as an art form) had not yet dawned.

But my purpose is not to summarize five decades of French cultural fashion in five lines.  It is rather to suggest, if you have an interest in the evolution of France as a society and a culture, and in the Europe of which it is an indispensable part; if you believe (as I do) that all this is of some relevance to our own future, that you forthwith lay hands on and read a book published by MacMillan in London last summer and a few months ago by St. Martin's Press in this country, to wit: The Rise and Fall of Anti-Americanism: A Century of French Perception(2).  It is this book, I must confess, and not the fact that I divide my time between the two countries, that is the proximate cause of the foregoing lucubrations; and of a few still to come.  At 258 pages, index included, it is a slim and tightly packed collection of essays by some twenty scholars, mostly French but including Robert Paxton, the historian of Vichy France; Theodore Zeldin of St. Antony's College, Oxford, the author of a monumental history (in the currently fashionable French sociological manner) of nineteenth-century France, and more recently of the unmonumental but more readable The French; and various other foreign observers such as the late Michael Harrison of the Geneva Institute of Advanced International Studies and Ezra Suleiman of Princeton.

Essay Types: Essay