From the archives: Hot and Cold Over 2 Centuries

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

PARIS -- One sign of the improving mood in Franco-American relations came recently when American Robert J. Fitzpatrick, president of the new Euro Disneyland under construction outside Paris, went to the Elysee Palace office of a senior French official to arrange a meeting with President Francois Mitterrand.

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.

Also, Fitzpatrick, a fluent French speaker as well as a scholar in medieval French literature, vividly remembered the polemical 1982 speech by Minister of Culture Jack Lang that called for a "crusade against American economic and cultural imperialism."

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."

Le Monde, meanwhile, has gone through some important management changes so that it is not the same reflexively left-leaning newspaper that it was a decade ago.

But in fashion-conscious France, the most important development is that the intellectual has become free to praise the United States and even capitalism. Only 20 years ago, such talk in the Left Bank literary cafes of Montparnasse or St. Germain-des-Pres was unimaginable.

"There is a change in the feeling of the French people toward Americans," said Bernard Vernier-Palliez, former French ambassador to the United States and former chief executive of the Renault automobile company. "In the late 1960s and 1970s, it was fashionable to be anti-American. Now it is fashionable to be pro-American. Just look at all the people jogging in the Bois de Boulogne--they all have on American university sweat shirts, even if they have never been to America."

In fact, an increasing number of French are attending American universities.

In 1948, when Jacques Maisonrouge finished his rigorous engineering course at the elite Ecole Centrale in Paris, he was one of only two students in a class of 270 who left France to attend graduate school or accept a postgraduate internship in a foreign country. Last year at Centrale, the school that produced Gustave Eiffel, 85 students in a class of 350 went abroad, including 70 to the United States.

"Today," said Maisonrouge, who rose through the ranks at IBM Corp. to become the first foreigner to serve on the board of directors, "the students are more open to travel. They see travel as a good thing. They learn another culture, and they are less arrogant."

No two countries ever started out on a better footing than France and the United States.

They have been linked by revolution since 1776, when the then-royal French government was the principal financial contributor and arms supplier to the American cause. Many historians believe, in fact, that the American Revolution could not have succeeded without the enormous French support.

Similarly, other historians feel that the French Revolution might never have taken place were it not for the crisis caused in the monarchy by the huge debts run up supporting the American revolutionaries.

The two revolutions were also the world's first ideological revolts, spawned in a furious intellectual exchange among such men as Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot on the French side and Jefferson, Franklin and Paine on the American side. The result was two remarkable documents: the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

After serving as one of the United States' first ambassadors to France, Thomas Jefferson once said: "Every American has two countries, his own and France." Indeed, it is impossible to walk down the streets of Paris without evoking the memory the great American revolutionaries: Washington, Franklin and Jefferson all have statues here. There are also quais or streets named after Presidents John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and George Washington.

What caused the two countries to slip apart, according to philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, one of the bright young nouveau philosophes of France, was not so much ideology about human rights as it was differing attitudes about money and "Western guilt" after World War II.

Until recently, Roman Catholic France has had a complex about money and making money. The traditional criticism that the French had about Americans was that they were greedy and only thought about money.

"At the turn of the century, there was at beginning a structural anti-Americanism in the French intelligentsia," Levy said in a recent interview in his tiny Left Bank office. "It was an anti-Americanism with roots in the extreme right, not the extreme left, as one might have thought. It was an anti-Americanism of people like (right-wing author) George Ballois, who began his book, 'Man Against Money,' with a sort of scream of hatred against the United States."

The second layer of anti-Americanism, Levy said, came from what he calls the "Third Worldism" of Sartre and the other old leftist philosophers--"a sort of guilty complex for being European and being Western. And since America represented the West in all its splendor, therefore we had to hate her."

"When I was 20 years old," said Levy, who is now 41, "to be Western was to have original sin. To be Western was, by definition, racism, torture and (World War II Nazi) concentration camps such as Auschwitz."

The combination of the two forces in French intellectual life, one from the right and the other from the left, produced some of the most virulent anti-Americanism in Europe. With a few notable exceptions, such as the late French philosopher Raymond Aron, most French students and intellectuals were firmly attached to the left.

"There was even a whole generation of French students who were able to take the Maoist Cultural Revolution (in China) as an example for France," recalled historian Francois Furet, one of the leading historians on the French Revolution. "It was something that could really blow your mind.

"Now that that has completely finished, you would not find a student who would support the Cultural Revolution of Mao," Furet continued. "We have had an extinction of this strong-rooted French belief in the takeover of the state to accomplish collective happiness. That is almost finished in France. What is completely new in France is the idea that it is impossible to change from the top, from the state, overnight. That is the bottom line of the French change."

Ironically, the final defeat of this traditional French romance with etatism --statism--came in the first three years after the election of the Fifth Republic's first Socialist government in 1981.

Dutifully and diligently, the newly elected Socialists under Mitterrand instituted textbook leftist economic policies, including widespread nationalization of industry.

An economist attached to one of the diplomatic missions in France said that "the turning point came in 1983 when the Socialist government abandoned its old economic policies and moved to a market-oriented policy." Among several important moves were the breaking of the link between wages and inflation and the sweeping away of price controls.

Even the baguette, the yard-long loaf of French bread, was liberated from its state-dictated price of two francs, 40 centimes.

Thriving under its newly embraced market economy, and sobered up from its intoxication with the left by the revelations about the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Soviet gulag, France was finally able to make friends with America.

"The rediscovery of America was largely a consequence of the rejection of the Soviet Union," said Harvard University Prof. Stanley Hoffmann, widely considered to be the leading American scholar on France and Europe. "Always before, the young people of France had looked at the Communist world as a world of hope. All of a sudden they discovered that America was a country of initiative and imagination and of liberalism, in the good sense of the word."

With the rise of Japan as an even bigger economic threat than the United States, the Americans lost their role as the principal ogres of capitalism.

Meanwhile, a new realism, a new minimalism, began to take hold in France with the creation of a united Europe under the expanded auspices of the European Community.

Instead of talking so much about "the glory of France," the French under Mitterrand have become the leading advocates of a strong, unified Europe in which they feature themselves as one of the natural cultural and economic pillars.

To the horror of the old French nationalists, Premier Michel Rocard has recently set a goal for France to become the "first among medium-sized countries."

"France is now a very good, decent, second-rank country," said business consultant Alain Minc, a top graduate of France's most prestigious school, the Ecole National d'Administration, and a best-selling author. "A very good, second-rank country like a lot of European countries. Some people have not accepted it yet, but it is a fact of life."

According to Oxford University French scholar Theodore Zeldin, the enthusiastic French embrace of Europe has taken away some of its traditional competition with the United States.

"What has vanished in the relationship with the U.S. is the sense of inferiority, and therefore envy," said Zeldin. "The United States will no longer be looked at as it was after the war. France is now part of a territory that is as big or bigger than the United States. Therefore, they can talk as equals."

"The French have refound the dignity and the pride of being Europeans," said philosopher Levy. "They have finished by understanding that the West is perhaps racism and colonialism and the (WWII concentration) camps--but it is also freedom, equality and the rights of men. And those are the two reasons that anti-Americanism has been reversed and that this old French passion is on the path of extinction."

Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World