To Some in France, U.S. Sinking in Storm

Times Staff Writer

Like other U.S. allies, France helped after Hurricane Katrina hit.

The French government sent about 20 tons of relief supplies to the Gulf Coast as well as military divers and other emergency workers. The Total oil company donated $1 million. The U.S. Embassy reports an outpouring of public donations and condolences.

But in a sign of the continuing tension in France’s 2-century-old alliance with the United States, a debate has arisen here about whether Katrina has also reopened the floodgates of anti-Americanism.


Some French commentators have been dismayed by the tone of the media coverage concerning the destruction across the Atlantic. Some prominent people in the French press and politics, they believe, have eagerly turned the catastrophe into an all-purpose symbol of American ills, real or imagined.

“If the United States didn’t exist, it would have to be invented so that elsewhere we can reassure ourselves, as if to better hide our own defects and incoherencies,” warned a recent editorial in Le Figaro newspaper. “It’s easy to ramble on about the decline of the American empire. Some even see the difficulties encountered by the U.S. as the work of a vengeful hand from the beyond.... Derision and demonizing are out of place.”

The extensive coverage has tended to paint the picture of a superpower brought down by economic inequality, racial conflict and neglectful government. A recent Nouvel Observateur cover summed up this stark view: “America Stripped Naked: The cyclone reveals the wounds of the every-man-for-himself society.”

Marianne, a left-leaning newsmagazine, declared: “The American giant folds beneath the weight of its failures and struggles to enforce an order that it wanted to impose on the world.”

Marianne’s take typified the profound disdain for President Bush in evidence here. A special issue titled “The Fall of the Pyromaniac Fireman” blamed Bush for a planetary flash fire of crises -- from Iraq to global warming -- that, in the magazine’s view, discredit an entire free-market-driven, militaristic “Anglo-Saxon model” of governance.

In the newspaper Liberation, Gerard Dupuy accused the Bush administration of “contempt for victims who without a doubt were doubly at fault for being both poor and black.” He concluded that the neoconservative “crusade,” which was “already mired in the Mesopotamian marshes” of Iraq, had “foundered in the Louisiana bayou.”

The U.S. media has also been tough on the administration for its response to the hurricane. But the invective here has been particularly harsh and grows partly out of an “old anti-American undercurrent reawakened by the war in Iraq,” columnist Laurent Joffrin wrote in Nouvel Observateur.

In the past, the anger about Iraq sometimes distorted reality, some analysts say. In 2003, author Alain Herthogue undertook a day-by-day analysis of French media accounts of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and compiled his findings in a book titled “The War of Outrages.” His study focused exclusively on the three-week invasion, not the unproven prior allegations about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or the insurgency that began after Saddam Hussein fell.

Herthogue asserted that the French media consistently, and erroneously, gave the impression that the military operation was about to collapse even as tanks rumbled into Baghdad.

French criticism of the Katrina crisis also shows fundamental differences in the role of the state in France and the U.S.

The French national government controls everything from law enforcement to healthcare to transportation. City and regional officials have more limited powers and duties than their U.S. counterparts, especially when it comes to disaster response. So New Orleans’ woes appear to confirm suspicions that Washington leaves Americans at the mercy of the forces of nature as well as markets.

Some pundits predict that Americans will now want a more muscular, “French” approach to government. But others suggest that it’s best not to point fingers. They recall the heat wave two years ago that killed about 15,000 people in France.

In that tragedy, many elderly people perished in hospitals and nursing homes that lacked air conditioning. Thousands of corpses were discovered in sweltering apartments as the death toll escalated and French leaders, as well as some relatives of the dead, were criticized for remaining on summer vacation.

“The denigrators have rushed to condemn the ‘American model,’ ” wrote Ivan Rioufol in Le Figaro. “But have they looked at the state of their own country? The Third World, exposed in the [American] South, exists in French housing projects.... The indifference to the marooned corpses recalls the 15,000 elderly, dead and abandoned in the 2003 heat wave.... It’s indecent to suggest, in this jubilation at describing a humiliated superpower, that France would have fared better.”

In a recent letter to this newspaper’s Paris Bureau from the southwestern town of Frejus, a retired contractor named Cesar Orefice complained that the media coverage of Katrina had been “absurdly triumphant” and gleefully anti-American.

It “leaves me disillusioned, overwhelmed, heartbroken by the simplistic anti-Americanism served to us like a dish a thousand times warmed-over,” wrote Orefice, 71. “We talk about these events essentially to criticize with a few accompanying giggles the incapacity of the American administration to react.... I wonder what efficiency we would have seen if a city like Lille, Lyon or Bordeaux had been wiped off the map.”

With the letter, Orefice enclosed a check for 50 euros (about $61) for Katrina’s victims.