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22 September 2003

Now French intellectuals love America

Contrary as always, the philosophers and literati of France have decided that they should stick up f

By David Lawday

Who will stand up to America? Count France in, of course. Our own Jack Straw, ever the diplomat, accuses the French of having an anti-American “neurosis”. President Bush sidelines France, or tries to. Donald Rumsfeld, with his slit-grin, ridicules it. But the French cock crows louder. The Iraq war’s sorry aftermath deepens a classic divide.

This is the international conflict of the hour, fought with words of mass destruction. Requesting France’s support via the United Nations to retrieve a disastrous situation of their own making is hard for the Americans; refraining from rubbing America’s nose in it is harder still for the French. Behind the divide is a history of cultural rivalry, world ambition, self-assertiveness, envy and regret (on both sides). Enough said that we British question the United States but always come out on its side; the French question the US and at best come out somewhere in a neighbouring camp, their questions left hanging.

The French, then, are anti-American – or so Americans firmly believe. After the attack on Manhattan’s twin towers, France’s leading newspaper, Le Monde, ran the Kennedyesque headline “We are all Americans now”. The Bush administration’s subsequent activities have undermined such profound solidarity, widening the original, fundamental split. French opinion polls show support for America falling by half, from a post-Manhattan disaster peak of 63 per cent to roughly 30 per cent today. No doubt Americans give Dominique de Villepin, France’s haughty foreign minister, a lower rating still. They won’t feel a lot kinder towards President Jacques Chirac, who is conscious of having greater power at home than ever before and is playing to it.

This won’t do. French intellectuals abhor sheeplike thinking and regard it as their purpose in life to be contrary. For years, France’s more ambitious thinkers, of whom there are many, were proponents of Soviet-style communism when it seemed plain to most French people that communism, even the Mediterranean variety, wasn’t best for France. So, given its preponderance, anti-Americanism has come to look like an intellectual challenge worth taking on. If the herd thinks this way, it ought to be driven the opposite way.

Welcome to anti-anti-Americanism. AAA is not exactly a movement; only a handful of intellectuals have yet subscribed. It is the combined thrust of a number of high-flyers who like to be heard, among them the inevitable Bernard-Henri Levy, the David Beckham of French philosophy. Because these thinkers talk and write a lot, their impact is greater than that of political leaders, especially now France’s literary-prize season is upon us.

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Half a dozen of the prize contenders are what might roughly be classed as AAA books. Their aim is to develop a rationale for feeling comfortable with America. Their inspiration – an ultimate show of intellectual contrariness, you might say – is not dissimilar to that of Washington’s neoconservatives.

AAA is a mixed salad of propositions. Humanitarian interventionism – the notion that war is permissible and good if it rids the world of wicked oppressors such as Saddam Hussein – has its place. Then comes the idea, picking up Bush’s “You’re either with us or against us” theme, that France must choose sides in the face of Islamic terrorism. Good and evil coexist, runs another, and it surely isn’t America that stands for evil. Then there is the idea of good ole America, the country that brought what the educated French enjoy most, if they’re honest – Hollywood (the French remain the most enthusiastic film buffs in Europe), a feisty literature, jazz, and maybe Cape Cod in summer thrown in.

The good-ole-America proposition reaches a sentimental peak in Dictionnaire amoureux de l’Amerique (Dictionary of Love for America), recently put out by Editions Plon, the literary publishing house. Even the dictionary, however, doesn’t scale the admiring AAA heights of a recent defence of America by that giant of letters, Jean-Francois Revel, an old liberal now as close to being a neo-con as French political persuasions allow. As the New Yorker magazine put it, Revel’s highly successful L’obsession anti-americaine (also published by Plon) would embarrass George Washington’s mum.

That France’s most visible intellectuals are Jewish may colour their ideas to an extent, though AAA is not overtly driven by sympathy for Israel in the raging Middle East conflict. The contribution from Levy, lately in America appearing on talk shows and writing op-ed articles that may help the natives remove the unwelcome taste of Villepin, is a passionate book on the fate of an American reporter murdered by Islamic fanatics in Pakistan while investigating al-Qaeda. Levy, a busy man married, like Beckham, to a gorgeous entertainment star, in fact regards the war on Iraq as a “historic error of calculation”. Written as a detective thriller, his bestselling Qui a tue Daniel Pearl? (Who Killed Daniel Pearl?) not merely sides with the US in its campaign against Islamic fundamentalism, it opts for a still more radical line. America is standing up for a belief; the trouble with France in this time of crisis is that it has none.

A parallel message leaps from L’ouest contre l’ouest (The west versus the west), a snappy new polemic from the philosopher Andre Glucksmann, another media figure in France. Glucksmann, a Marxist turned Wolfowitzian scold, is distraught that some French opinion wants to believe that America, too big for its Nikes, had 11 September 2001 coming to it. He regards America as the world, more representative of mankind in its diversity than we in Europe are (I assume he means New York, not America). In his AAA diatribe, Glucksmann excuses George W Bush for harping on good and evil, the formulation that has the French writhing.

What shocks Glucksmann is the failure of so many people around the world to define the twin towers attack as evil. America’s stand against evil demonstrates its health, he writes. French reluctance is nihilism. Which of the two positions is civilised? In equating America with civilisation, Glucksmann says the term has a double sense: the state of being civilised and the act of civilising. “Civilisation is not only peace, it is capable of war.” The principle extends back to ancient Greece, Glucksmann argues; it is not the invention of Washington hawks. In the case of Saddam, there were two great dangers: the danger he constituted and the danger of bringing him down by war. The task was to compare the dangers for those subjected to them and then to choose the lesser evil. Tony Blair could not have been more precise.

Among favourites for the Prix Goncourt, France’s foremost literary prize, is the novel Windows on the World (the original title is in English) by the provocative Frederic Beigbeder, who puts himself in the place of an American divorcee having an early breakfast on 11 September 2001 with his two excited young sons at the Windows on the World restaurant, atop the north tower of the World Trade Center. In the smoke and bewilderment of the American Airlines crash, the man and his sons soon realise they are to die. There is no escape. Here the AAA element is more subliminal, though Beigbeder, a TV studio-hopper capable of out-appearing Levy, contends that he wrote the book, published by Grasset, because he is sick of French anti-Americanism.

If one leaves aside France’s stubborn campaign to curb American power through the UN, the current output of the French thinking class might suggest that anti-Americanism is evaporating. But the AAA “movement” has a flaw. It fails to address the result of the Iraq war. It stops at the principle dear to Bush: that all’s well that ends well. Alas, it has not ended well. Glucksmann’s polemic falls on its face when he points up the difference between bombing Baghdad and bombing Grozny, the Chechen capital: in Baghdad, he contends, the inhabitants are now free to live and talk, protest and rejoice, as they wish. Really?

Anti-Americanism in France has its ups and downs. It has more hold on the governing class, with its powerful sense of history, than on the man in the street. That said, there is undeniably a visceral streak. Under the letter “a” for “anti-American”, Yves Berger, compiler of the Dictionnaire amoureux de l’Amerique, recalls that as a boy, one of the first things he heard a close neighbour say after the liberation of France in 1945 was: “The Americans, they’re all idiots.” This was the same neighbour who had listened in secret to wartime Radio London three times a week in joyful expectation that the Americans were about to land.

Pleasure in criticising America retains its bite. It helps make up for the erosion of French influence, which is hard-felt. I would be surprised if AAA had much more success in shifting attitudes towards America than French intellectuals had in shifting France to communist rule.

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