France falls for America -- hook, line, and Brooks Brothers

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

What do the French listen to these days? Los Angeles-style rock radio. What do they wear? Brooks Brothers button-down-collar shirts. And dream about? Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. In short, the French have fallen in love with America.

The news is surprising. Americans tend to remember France as the most anti-American of European countries. But polls today show that the French currently think more highly of the United States than do either the West Germans or the British.

Consider some figures cited at a recent conference on French attitudes toward the United States, organized by the French Institute of Political Science. When asked in 1953 where they would like to live if they had to leave France, the French preferred Canada; these days the US is the most popular response. Some 44 percent of the French consider themselves pro-American. Only 15 percent still think of themselves as anti-American.

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``We were surprised ourselves by the outcome,'' exclaims Marie-France Toinet, the conference coordinator. ``We even found that the panelists admired President Reagan, his optimism, his rugged individualism, and his proud patriotism. And yet when he came to power, many of these same people thought it was a castastrophe, a cowboy, a Hollywood actor.''

Like most analysts, Ms. Toinet notes that such anti-American putdowns stemmed in large part from France's deep belief in itself at a time when its influence was diminishing. In the 1950s and '60s, the French felt their independence threatened by US economic and cultural power. A general feeling grew that the French way of life had to be defended against encroaching US commercialism and standardization.

With his insistence on national independence, President Charles de Gaulle incarnated this feeling. He withdrew France from NATO's military wing. He developed the country's nuclear force de frappe. Although these actions were designed to keep France outside the orbit of either superpower, they ended up tilting the country toward the Soviet Union.

Such a pro-Soviet position found wide support inside France. Drawing on its strong resistance record, the French Communist Party was supported by nearly a quarter of the electorate. Almost all postwar French intellectuals were fascinated by Marxism. The cold war and the Vietnam conflict reinforced the perception that the main danger to world peace came not from the Soviet Union, but the US.

In recent years, this consensus has crumbled. Pierre Hassner, an East European specialist at the International Research Center, cites ``the Gulag effect.'' With the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's books, French intellectuals and the general public discovered Soviet human rights abuses.

At the same time faith in the Soviet Union was vanishing, France's own self-image improved. While the French realize that they are a middle-sized power, they compared their own situation favorably with their European neighbors.

Unlike Britain, there is no sense of economic hopelessness. In the 30 years between 1945 and 1975, the French economy expanded at a rate second only to that of Japan, faster than the United States and faster than West Germany. And unlike West Germany, there are no US soldiers or missiles on French territory. The French President controls his own nuclear forces.

``As ironic as it sounds, Americans should thank DeGaulle,'' says Annette Levy-Willard, a reporter for the left-leaning newspaper, Lib'eration. ``He made the French feel comfortable with themselves.''

In another great irony, she adds that Americans should thank present Socialist President Fran,cois Mitterrand. When he came to power in 1981 and named four communist ministers, US diplomats feared the worst. But as part of an effort to reduce communist influence in his administration, Mr. Mitterrand distanced himself further from the Soviet Union than any postwar French administration. The corollary was a significant rapprochement on defense matters with the US.

Similar shifts have occurred in economic and social matters. Both conservatives and Socialists used to favor large doses of state intervention in the economy. Now neither do.

The conservatives have embraced Reagonomics. In a recent interview with the Monitor, the present Gaullist Budget Minister Alain Jupp'e emphasized cutting back the state to promote growth. He promised tax cuts, privatization of public companies, and more freedom for employers to lay off workers.

Although the Socialists oppose such ideas, many of their ideas also are inspired by the US. They want to promote business profits in order to modernize and they are infatuated with high technology.

Even French style has been affected. The ``in'' stores such as Berteil on the Place Saint Augustin sell the American staples of button-down shirts, gray flannels, plaids, and, of course, tennis shirts with alligators. A new book, ``BCBG: Le Guide du Bon Chic Bon Genre,'' has sold about 100,000 copies and there's going to be a paperback edition out next month. Bon Chic Bon Genre (BCBG for short), which translates as ``elegant and well mannered,'' is the French shorthand for preppie.

Youth fads are even more US-oriented. Take the story of the country's most popular radio station, NRJ. Even in French, the disc jockey's intonations sound American. So does the music with its heavy diet of American Top 40. ``The format is copied from the Los Angeles' KIIS radio,'' admits NRJ programming director Dominique DuForest. ``We hired an American consultant.''

Where will the copying end? Some analysts note that many of the roots of the pro-American flower have not been dug too deep. Michel Winock, an American-studies professor at the French Institute for Political Science takes as an example the many French Reaganophiles who don't fully understand what Reagan's influence means in the American context. This explains why, only a few weeks after they came to power, the conservatives already are backing off from their more radical proposals of dismantling the welfare state. ``Just as we were superficially anti-American before,'' Professor Winock concludes, ``we are superficially pro-American now.''

But other analysts believe a profound evolution is taking place. With the French less afraid of American ``colonization,'' they feel more able to look Americans in the eye as equals. In this new climate, the French are still ready and eager to learn from America, both materially and socially, but they want to do so on their own terms.

Marie-France Toinet believes Americans have helped by becoming more respectful of the French. She recalls how American tourists used to come to France and order coffee with foie gras. The horrified waiter would refuse to serve them. Today, she says, such incidents are rarer.

``The American is beginning to appreciate the value of French cuisine,'' she says. ``In return, we're beginning to like Coca-Cola and pastrami.''

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