The Magazine

How Europe Sees Us

The old world confronts the new.

Dec 27, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 15 • By FRED SIEGEL
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In a stormy tactical alliance, the French monarchy aided the American revolutionaries fighting for their independence against the British. But even as they worked with the Americans, the French tried to confine them to the land between the Atlantic and the Appalachians for fear that the United States might become a mighty rival. After Yorktown, the tensions between America and France meant, in the words of James McHenry, an aide to Washington, that the alliance was "terminated without leaving behind it any political principle or true permanent connection."

By 1798 Napoleonic France and the fledgling United States were embroiled in an undeclared naval war that lasted until 1800. Long before the U.N. Oil for Food scandal enabled Saddam to buy French officials, Napoleon's foreign minister, the oleaginous Talleyrand, was demanding a "douceur"--a sweetener, a bribe--from the Americans trying to negotiate an end to the hostilities. Talleyrand's shakedown, known as the XYZ Affair, led to widespread anti-French sentiment and the slogan: "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute."

France and the United States would continue to joust over French attempts to reestablish a foothold in North America. In the 1850s, Louis Napoleon, alarmed by the growth of American strength, looked to Mexico to create what a Parisian journalist described as "a counterweight to the Republic of the United States." A supporter of the Confederacy during the Civil War, Louis Napoleon installed a puppet Hapsburg, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, as emperor of Mexico. France and the United States came to the brink of war; but Maximilian was brought down by Mexicans themselves, unwilling to be ruled by a European fop.

ALL OF THIS HISTORY is fascinating, but by the time Our Oldest Enemy gets to the twentieth century, Miller and Molesky's jaundiced view of the French gets the best of them--as, for instance, when they argue that France and its leader during World War I, Clemenceau, bear the bulk of responsibility for World War II.

Still, Our Oldest Enemy is right that things are pretty bad today. The book's closing sections anticipate the Duelfer report. Charles Duelfer, who headed the Iraq Survey Group, found that tight Franco-Iraqi ties greased by the U.N.'s Oil for Bribery Program made war more likely because Saddam thought correctly that the French would do everything they could to undermine the United States. The French prime minister, responding recently to a question about French citizens taken hostage, noted that the "Iraqi insurgents are our best allies."

IT IS, in fact, France's lack of a liberal tradition that perpetually pits it against the United States. In another recent volume, Cowboy Capitalism: European Myths, American Reality, the German economic journalist Olaf Gersemann notes that "the French, Germans, and Italians got rich during times in which technological progress was relatively slow and the pressure to adjust quickly was relatively low"--while, in other words, "global competition was relatively weak." But, as in the Arab world, the economic reforms needed to respond to globalization are demonized in France as "Americanization." Despite (or perhaps because of) widespread early retirement, the thirty-five-hour work week, and a wellspring of government subsidized jobs, France's inability to reform has translated into ongoing unemployment rates of nearly 10 percent. A quarter of French youth are unemployed while roughly 40 percent of immigrant families are jobless. Yet over the last twenty years every attempt by French governments of both the left and the right to reform the system of unaffordable social benefits and rigid work rules has been met with massive street demonstrations and, in the end, defeat.

Sclerotic, unable to reform internally, a French society in decline is held together by the glue of anti-Americanism. Two additional factors add to the intensity of recent French anti-Americanism. The first is the conscious attempt, first laid out in 1945 by Alexandre Kojève, one of the intellectual architects of the European Union, to use the Arab world to create a Eurabian "counterweight" to the United States. The second is that during the run-up to the Iraq war, France and its partner Germany, in what Garton Ash describes as Euro-Gaullism, tried to use anti-Americanism as a means of maintaining rule over a European Union expanding into Eastern Europe. France and Germany needed to control the governance of a guaranteed European market because of their declining ability to compete globally. They failed.