France falls for America -- hook, line, and Brooks Brothers
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
``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.''