by Violaine Messager
(Warning: This article does not aim at agreeing with one side or the other, either Bush or Chirac to extrapolate. It just aims at reflecting a French person’s feeling about the question of French-American relationships or rather the lack of debate in her country.)
Everyone heard the French Foreign Affairs Minister’s well-applauded speech during the UN session about the war on Iraq (or “against Iraq” if you prefer). I was impressed and I encountered difficulties figuring out my actual opinion about it. Indeed, I was torn between some kind of approval of the part to be played by the Old Europe and an inability to understand the American project I could not be satisfied with.
Then, there have been anti-war demonstrations and I have to say a whole bunch of people crowding who had nothing to do there, as high school pupils skipping their lectures and yelling at Americans or even improvised techno parties in the streets at six p.m.
I used to be fiercely anti-American at times when I was amazed by the lack of self-questioning of their foreign politics until I found out that an ignorant and narrow-minded American cannot find anybody closer from himself than a French ignorant narrow-minded person. I started wondering why I turned so mad and convinced I was so right every time the issue was tackled, why other countries whose behaviour is no better did not trigger this response inside me. I will let you know my theory about it.
One root of this harsh feeling is the very fact that the French define their identity in a close and conflicted relationship with the American identity. Again, I do not intend to draw the ultimate criticism of my own culture’s basis. But if France’s identity is closely intertwined with the American one, none could say the same of the American feeling that builds on a recently renewed isolationism doctrine detached from any representation of “the fascinating Outsider” be it French or not, paving the way to a representation of the Other as the Bad, or even “the axis of evil.”
Our two fellows (Bush and Chirac again to make it simple) are both known by their great imperialism. The French are known by the imperialism of knowledge, “the remaining imperialism when the culture is itself dominated,” say the others, while the Americans are more concerned with efficiency through a synthesis of economics and culture. The first ones are necessarily shocked by a war that secures oil while the soldiers eat their sandwiches while observing the museums being plundered. But what is striking in France is precisely the missing debate, the consensus of all kinds of people about international affairs as opposed to the enlightening debate that is set in America according to Annie Cohen-Solal. I observe that there is a special French deep-rooted pride that contributes to repeated misunderstanding in Europe, with the Spanish, the British, and people from Eastern European for example. Moreover, the pattern in which the French felt they had to react while the others would accept the American solution is surprising and unfortunately stagnating. And this is a problem: I was opposed to the war in Iraq, but responsibility involves caution. Politics are often said to be the realm of pragmatism as opposed to Ideas. I have been confused by the impossibility to dissociate oil pragmatism from a kind of democracy building utopia. Have we come to an end where both are merged?
Meanwhile, nothing really wonderful under the political clouds of the Frontier’s realm and the suffocating ignorance of its first man, the President. The hatred of intellectuals can be traced back to the worldwide known American literature and is nothing should be surprising except for its current consequences in the world non-Americans live in, too. But something can be noticed. The French universities are oddly lazy in regards to international affairs study and North-North relationships, while being particularly enlightening in the North-South debate. The colonization experience indeed empowered the European countries with a legacy of “what not to do to build a proper democracy,” while the Americans have not had yet enough of their own history to get it. On the other hand, the French still cannot deal with the North, be it either the CEEC countries or the USA to the point of destroying years long work in the length of a minute.
Our two fellows who cannot get along are thus once more featured by a commonality, the inability to learn from History in one respect. The combination of those two crippled foreign politics plus the virus of imperialism and excessive pride result in a fierce anti-each other feeling. This feeling being obviously overwhelming in the weaker of those two.
So many issues currently relate to this focal point: The European conventional ambition in an enlarged Europe and the project of a European common defense are not the least of them. But I notice the words of the disagreement have not changed for four years even though their meaning may have changed. Indeed, while browsing the web, I ended up reading an article from the 1999 edition of the International Herald Tribune and I thought, at first, it was a recent release until I noticed the date. The French headlines have not deeply evolved either except that they now stand up for their anti-Americanism. Seriously, let ‘s all think about it before criticising each other. The French should be very interested in having a look in the working papers of the European Studies Departments of the American universities. I will let another person, more skilled than I am in this respect, writing a symmetric comment about other continent’s politics.