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France and America: Opposites, but still attracted

One way of understanding how the French really feel about the United States these days is to ask them not about Iraq but about Arnold Schwarzenegger.

When the Austrian-born actor won the governorship of California, some politicians and commentators said that his victory reflected a dangerous American populism.

But many French shared the enthusiasm of Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s law-and-order interior minister.

Sarkozy is said to harbor presidential ambitions, but the fact that he is the offspring of Hungarian immigrants and never went to an elite school puts him at a distinct disadvantage.

In a remarkably confessional interview with RTL radio, Sarkozy said of Schwarzenegger: “That someone who is a foreigner in his country, who has an unpronounceable name,” can become the governor of the biggest state in the United States, “is not nothing!”

The current French-American rift, born of differences over Iraq but rooted in deeper post-cold-war friction, is more complex than it may appear. Bitter feelings remain strong on both sides of the Atlantic, and there is a sense that something fundamental in the relationship has failed. In many areas, anti-Americanism – of the kind President George W. Bush will encounter in a visit to Britain next week – is at a high pitch.

But a close look at French attitudes toward America suggests that repulsion and disenchantment are at least equaled by attraction, curiosity and outright envy.

Huge swaths of the relationship – in the realms of business, intelligence and even military affairs – still work. Criticism of the Bush administration, given full voice in the media, is offset by a French business ethic that often lauds the United States, and by a strong feeling, particularly among the young, that America remains a land of opportunity.

“When someone says, ‘I’m going to work for a big corporation in New York for two years,’ well, we all want to live that life,” said Martin Coriat, 24, a student at a business school.

It is true that in strategic terms, the countries often seem to have parted ways.

France’s unease with the extent of American power has been bubbling since the end of the cold war dissolved the glue of trans-Atlantic relations: a shared threat assessment of Soviet power. No such common threat assessment has existed since then.

Indeed, if Sept. 11, 2001, is now the date of reference for America’s security outlook, France and all of Europe tend to look more to 1989 and the end of the cold war. Even as America feels more threatened, Europe and France feel less so. With Iraq, these differences exploded.

“The Americans used the equation ‘Iraq equals terrorism’ to create a sort of debt of loyalty,” argues Stanley Hoffmann, the Harvard historian, in his new book, published in France last month, titled “America, Truly Imperial?” But, he adds, the French government failed to “appreciate how much the context was new.”

What also is new is that France, like much of Europe, has relinquished some sovereignty, embracing multinational institutions like the European Union and the World Court.

As a result, France seeks to maximizes its influence by becoming part of a bigger whole. By contrast, the Bush administration prefers to make decisions unilaterally, working with others only when necessary, as with the invasion of Iraq. Tensions inevitably grow.

They are accentuated by the fact that France still believes, like America, that is it has a global mission to spread democracy and liberty. But French “republicanism” requires adherence to the notion of the ideal citizen and does not celebrate diversity or ambition. That, says Michele Lamont of Harvard University, “limits possibilities.”

The lure of America The view of America as a land of possibility is strong at L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales in Jouy-en-Josas, a leafy town 25 kilometers, or 15 miles, from Paris. At this school of business and commerce, the goal is to teach students how to compete in a globalized world where American business models set the standard. Gone is France’s historic unease about discussing money.

“Profit is the driver,” said Bernard Ramanantsoa, the school’s dean and a professor of strategy and business policy. “Money is the key.”

Here, the dream among many French students is not to put down roots at home but to sail away – to America, a mythical place, perhaps, but one of boundless energy and possibility.

For Florian Bressand, 23, America offers “the right to fail that does not exist in France.”

The exodus of young French to Silicon Valley is so dramatic that it has led to the creation of organizations like Interfrench, a nonprofit group of 5,000 French-speaking members who share business intelligence and even advice about French restaurants.

The departures reflect a measure of self-doubt. A slim volume titled “La France qui tombe,” or “France in Free Fall,” is on the best-seller list; France’s troubled economy has sparked a fierce debate on the wisdom of a law limiting workers to a 35-hour week and whether the French work hard enough. A recent poll found that 63 percent of the French believe their country is in decline.

Yet such doubts coexist with a French sense of cultural superiority to America that often seems overwhelming. Only 24 percent of the French are inspired by the American economic system, 13 percent by American culture, 10 percent by lifestyle and 8 percent by American foreign policy, a poll by the BVA group last found in February.

The disdain for things American is expressed in a variety of ways. Mayor Bertrand Delanoë of Paris, for example, protested the death penalty in the United States by bestowing honorary citizenship on Mumia Abu Jamal, a former Black Panther sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of a white Philadelphia policeman.

The Americanization of France

Dreams of America do not exist in the worker bars just outside a Michelin tire plant in Clermont-Ferrand.

Here, the smell of cigarette smoke masks that of rubber and glue in the medieval-turned-industrial city in the heart of France. The conversations about America among assembly line workers just off the night shift tend to focus on the dangers of a world driven by the American quest for profit.

“The United States, many people say it’s so good. But the bottom line, the only thing that counts, is money,” said Jose Fernandes, 45, a 26-year veteran at Michelin. “Retired people are forced to go back to work. The lowest workers don’t get paid vacations. If your boss doesn’t like you, you’re fired.”

Fernandes added that Michelin management “would copy the United States if it could. But it can’t. Here, we have laws.” He was referring to French regulations that often make firing an employee impossible, guarantee six-week vacations and provide comprehensive pensions and health care.

The scene is rather different inside Michelin’s corporate headquarters. Here, managers use American team-building models and are driven by a fierce competitiveness that has put Michelin ( barely) in the position of No. 1 global tire manufacturer.

Michelin may be one of the most secretive companies in France, but it is also one of the most global, with operations in 18 countries. Only about 30,000 of 130,000 employees worldwide work in France.

“The culture of Michelin is not to be too French,” said Jean Laporte, director of Michelin’s internal communications. That means talking about profit all the time, he said, adding, “Maybe it’s a little bit of an exaggeration to say that the French never talk about money.”

Last spring, in the face of an American campaign to boycott all things French, Michelin itself went to war. It answered every letter, e-mail message and phone call, informing its potential enemies that Michelin is as American as it is French, that it employs more than 20,000 Americans in 17 American factories and produces tires for U.S. Army armored personnel carriers.

The public relations offensive worked; the boycott – at Michelin, at least – failed.

What works, what doesn’t

Just as Michelin has gone on selling tires in America, swaths of the France-American relationship have continued to run smoothly. When the French police in June arrested Christian Ganczarski, a German Al Qaeda sympathizer with links to the bombing of a Tunisian synagogue in April 2002 and the Sept. 11 attacks, it was the result of an American-inspired sting operation with Saudi and French cooperation.

“The cooperation with the CIA and FBI has become even stronger since September 11 when the United States understood – as we did long before – the war against radical Islam,” said Pierre de Bousquet, the head of France’s counterintelligence service. “Nothing has changed because of Iraq.” But more than six months after Bush declared the war against Iraq over, the extreme friction with France is not. On several issues – from the environment to the death penalty – France and America do not share the same values.

The Bush administration remains in an unforgiving mood, French diplomats say. White House officials remind their French counterparts that the relationship is seriously damaged, and that they are sorely disappointed that France is refusing to contribute to Iraq’s reconstruction.

Cognizant of the damage, President Jacques Chirac has stopped using the expression “multipolar world,” which had enraged Bush administration officials because it seemed to envision a power to oppose rather than support America.

But privately, many of Chirac’s advisers have concluded that they will have to wait for a new American administration before the rift can be repaired.

By both American and French accounts, when Bush and Chirac met in New York in September, they had a remarkably cordial chat – until conversation turned to Iraq.

Chirac said that he knew from “bitter experience” not to underestimate the power of Arab nationalism, and that a swift transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people was crucial, said two senior officials familiar with the conversation.

“Jacques, I have listened carefully and I strongly disagree,” Bush was paraphrased as responding.

Chirac backed off, saying that he was making the point as a friend. Then he added ominously, “History will judge.” For France and America, the rift is not quite complete.

5 thoughts on “France and America: Opposites, but still attracted”

  1. America offers people a chance to “make it” which is not the case in France. It is due to a small minded old fashioned attitude that is still alive in France.
    Even if I don’t like the Bush administration at all, I still prefer America to France…

  2. forgot to mention that the blog has been re-titled “thinking out loud” which I should do more of, before I fill in comment boxes…!

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