Fitzpatrick, former president of the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, was not sure how the meeting would go. Some members of the French intellectual community had strongly opposed the huge Disney project, calling it a "cultural Chernobyl"--a reference to the Soviet nuclear disaster.
So he was more than pleasantly surprised when the first question from the French official was: "Why did you take Zorro off the Disney Channel?"
Things have gone smoothly ever since, even without Zorro. The massive $3-billion Disney development at Marne-la-Vallee, 20 miles east of Paris, has become the second-largest construction project in Europe. The French government even assigned Fitzpatrick a special liaison to help cut through red tape.
"I think French-American relations are probably better than they have ever been," Fitzpatrick said in a recent interview. "Better than at any time in the 200-year history between the two countries."
As France prepares today for its biggest birthday party ever--the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille prison that began the French Revolution--it can be reported from this side of the Atlantic Ocean that the on-again, off-again love affair between French and Americans is on again.
Telephone surveys of the French show that the United States and the American people are more popular here now than at any time since World War II. In one 1988 poll conducted by Le Point magazine, French citizens listed the United States as one of their country's "truest friends," behind only Belgium and Canada.
Hard to Believe?
Americans accustomed to decades of French condescension and abuse, which began during the late 1950s under iconoclastic President Charles de Gaulle, may find it difficult to believe polls that show the United States is more popular in France today than it is in Britain or West Germany.
One of the more astonishing polls, conducted by Gallup International for the French-American Foundation and L'Express Magazine, compared data collected in 1976, 1982 and 1986. A large sample of French were asked the same questions all three years: "In the last 10 years, has the prestige of the United States increased?"
In 1976, only 20% of the French answered "yes." In 1982, the figure had jumped to 29%. In 1986, it was 36%.
Correspondingly, the number of French who thought U.S. prestige had declined fell from 44% in 1976 to 22% in 1986. The 1986 poll was conducted only days after the U.S. bombed Libya, a move that the French government had refused to support, to the extent of making U.S. bombers from bases in England skirt French airspace.
Signs of the rekindled flame in Franco-American relations abound even in the French intellectual community, where the late French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once heaped disdain on the United States, and on the somber pages of Le Monde, the influential left-of-center French newspaper that was once at the forefront of America-bashing. For instance:
-- After touring America for several months, French writer Jean Baudrillard declared in his latest book "America": "The U.S. is utopia achieved.
"We in Europe possess the art of thinking, of analyzing things and reflecting on them," wrote Baudrillard, a sociologist who was at the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris when massive, instinctively anti-American student demonstrations broke out in 1968. "No one disputes our historical subtlety and conceptual imagination. Even the great minds across the Atlantic envy us in this regard. But the resounding truths, the realities of genuinely great moment today are to be found along the Pacific seaboard or in Manhattan. It has to be said that New York and Los Angeles are the center of the world, even if we find the idea somehow both exciting and disenchanting."
-- After a summit meeting in Maine on May 22 between Mitterrand and President Bush, Le Monde announced a new era of "Franco-American euphoria" in a front-page editorial.
"Twenty years after the departure of Gen. de Gaulle," Le Monde reported, "one is accustomed to a thawing of French-American relations. But this was the first time that a summit between presidents from the two countries has concluded so well. The word 'euphoria' is not too strong to describe the climate of the meetings between Mr. Mitterrand and Mr. Bush in New England."
Baudrillard has been accused of going overboard in his book's ode to the United States. For example, he argues that the wild violence of American cities is a sign of the thrilling vitality of American life: "Nothing could be more intense, electrifying, turbulent and vital than the streets of New York."