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17 July 2000

Shaking off Uncle Sam

France has a mission for its presidency of the EU: to roll back the Americanisation of Europe. Will

By John Lloyd

The grand procession in honour of Jose Bove, the leader of the Confederation des Paysans, famous trasher of McDonald’s and scourge of globalisation, streamed all the way to the courthouse in the southern French town of Millau at the end of June. The procession passed a little cinema tucked away behind the mairie. A plaque outside noted that it was here in Millau that the film director Jean Vigo spent some years of his childhood at a boarding school cum reformatory, following a stint in prison with his anarchist father. It was this reformatory that provided the imagined backdrop for the most famous of the four films made in his short life – Zero de Conduite.

Beside the plaque was a poster for the film now showing in the cinema – Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Gladiator is a sophisticated, but textbook, exemplar of the most popular trope in cinema today; the successful struggle of an American – or, in this case, Americanised – hero against tyranny.

Here, in the side street echoing with the drumming and chanting of Bove’s people, was a quiet instance of their central concern – the Americanisation of European culture (see, or rather don’t see, Independence Day, Saving Private Ryan, U-571 and so on). The subtleties of Vigo’s transmutation of his own adolescent misery into a moment of imagined rebellion had given way to a much cruder and more popular vision of a liberation a la americaine.

A few days before the march, Hubert Vedrine, the French foreign minister, was reluctantly attending a conference in Poland. “I only came,” he explained ungraciously during the conference, “because [Bronislaw] Geremek [the Polish foreign minister, now resigned] asked me 15 times.” France was one of 107 countries attending the conference, which was dedicated to the theme of democracy.

At the end of the conference, a declaration was produced which called for the creation of “coalitions and understandings aimed at supporting resolutions (on the construction or restoration of democracy) and other international actions for the promotion of a democratic method of government”. This, for Vedrine, smacked of a “triumphalist” spirit – and he chided western states (read: the US) for giving “the impression that they use the universal aspiration to democracy and respect for the rights of man . . . as means of political, economic, cultural influence or domination”. Of the attendees, 106 signed the declaration. France did not. Madeleine Albright, who had committed a good deal of time to the conference, was furious: a “senior American official”, quoted by Le Monde, said “107 countries had come to support democracy, but 106 really did”.

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A few days before that, the French interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, debated Europe with Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister (see Profile, New Statesman, 3 July). Fischer had given a visionary though “personal” speech about the need for a federal Europe: Chevenement had attacked the speech, saying that Germany had “not been cured from the Nazi derailment” and that Germans could still not imagine a Europe with genuinely independent members.

The French minister was at pains to use the exchange to say that “the liberation of 1945 must not lead to an eternal dependence on the liberator, that is, the US . . . We must learn to think of the US as partners and not as protectors.”

France, which now holds the presidency of the European Union, is the most credible recaster of the European-US relationship. Its political class clearly seeks to renew and strengthen the central entente between France and Germany as the driving force of a more assertive Europe; the rest of the world, the French believe, is globalising in a monochrome, American way. During its six-month presidency, France will try to coax other “pioneers”, such as Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Finland, to agree with the Franco-German push for closeness.

Already, however, Giuliano Amato, the Italian prime minister, has signalled disquiet: in an interview in the Financial Times, he said that, while the EU “has to find wide agreement on better procedures for enhanced co-operation”, he still “could not imagine any core of Europe existing without Britain”.

Meanwhile, although Britain and the Scandinavian countries, as well as Austria and Greece, are in a kind of salon des semi-refuses, they are too different to find a common opposition to Franco-German plans.

The British exception revolves around an apparently settled popular view that the pound should be retained and that sovereignty should not be further diluted. Although the governing class now broadly favours a common currency and the reform of European institutions to permit a closer union (but never as far as federalism), it has too much to lose to join a bloc that treats America as a mere partner, rather than a protector.

If the French project is to move forward, it must tread on British toes. Tony Blair showed European leaders that the British government was no longer viscerally anti-union; he has introduced the practice of policy discussion through Third Way exchanges, and he has posed questions both on the internal market and on the relationship with the US which they had been unwilling to face.

Blair, however, is no longer in any kind of vanguard. This is largely because both France and Germany, and even Italy, are hauling themselves out of the economic doldrums. Growth in France, in particular, is high, at 3.5 per cent annualised, and unemployment is zipping downwards, falling under 10 per cent for the first time since the mid-1990s. Add to this a health service that has recently been credited as being the best in the world and a football team that snatched victory from the Italians in the final seconds of the European Championship final, and you have the picture of a successful nation.

Britain, whose economic success shows signs of slowing, cannot stand as a liberal model to a France (and Europe) that is doing well while retaining a much stronger statism and, in France’s case, also moving to a 35-hour week – something that had been widely mocked here as a prelude to higher unemployment.

The champion, then, is in great shape. It has the vigour and self-confidence to launch Europe as an alternative to the US – as democratic, as successful in the market as the transatlantic hegemon, but possessed of a distinct system of values rooted in a social or Christian democratic tradition that it wants to retain.

France wants to pose as the liberator of Europe from a servile dependence. There will be problems: the Millau cinema shows Gladiator rather than Zero de Conduite presumably because of a calculation about the market place. McDonald’s sells ever more hamburgers in France. Is a call from above, from a political elite rendered euphoric by its success and sense of mission, going to work? Do we follow?