France's American problem

Posted: Nov 29, 2004 12:00 AM

PARIS -- U.S. diplomats here respond to Jacques Chirac's continued Yankee-bashing following George W. Bush's re-election by saying the French president is out of step with his people, who are not nearly that anti-American. But thoughtful Frenchmen believe President Chirac is mining a deep vein of sentiment among fellow citizens that transcends President Bush.

 During a week in Paris, I encountered none of the rudeness I had been warned to expect because of my nationality. However, the question goes beyond amenities to visitors. One French intellectual described anti-Americanism to me as "a cancer that is sweeping across the country." It may not be as deadly as cancer, but it surely is not healthy for France.

 The chronic nature of French hostility toward the United States contradicts claims by Bush's domestic critics that his unilateral policies caused deterioration of Franco-American relations. It is less the U.S. with a French problem than France burdened with a serious American problem.

 On his recent visit to London, Chirac pressed for "multipolarity": a return to international rivalries that produced the carnage of the 20th century. He also suggested there was no point trying to repair his country's difficulties with Washington and taunted British Prime Minister Tony Blair because "our American friends" do not "pay back favors." Mocking Donald Rumsfeld's designation of France as "Old Europe," he pretended not to remember the secretary of defense's name and referred to him, sarcastically, as "that nice guy of America."

 State Department officials thought Chirac would reach out to Washington once Bush was re-elected, and U.S. diplomats here say he has misread French opinion. On the contrary, playing the anti-American card is seen in political circles here as Chirac's strongest position as he prepares to run for a third five-year term in 2007. He is unpopular, detested by the Left and considered an apostate on the Right, but may survive by bashing Uncle Sam.

 The impression by U.S. officials that Chirac is going too far in chiding the Americans may be based on anecdotal evidence, such as my encounter with a Paris kiosk owner from whom I bought a newspaper. "Oh, we just love Americans," he beamed as he gave me a free piece of chocolate candy to go with the International Herald Tribune, "it's Bush we hate."

 However, the problem goes much deeper than Bush or the 80 percent election preference for John Kerry in French polls. A writer here told me of his 19-year-old daughter attending a one-day French army briefing, mandatory after conscription was abolished. The last four hours consisted of a harangue on U.S. foreign policy, especially in Iraq. That war was described as a plot by American capitalists to cheat Iraqis out of their oil in a lecture that would have done justice to a conspiracy-minded Internet blogger.

 U.S. officials say Charles DeGaulle at least gave the U.S. help when needed and so is unlike the latter-day Gaullist Chirac. Actually, DeGaulle was an inconstant ally in the Cold War who often sided with the Soviet Union in return for soft treatment by the then powerful French Communist Party.

 Yet, the attitude Chirac reflects cannot be blamed on DeGaulle. The U.S. may have replaced Britain, which for centuries was "Perfidious Albion" to the French. Jean-Claude Casanova, editor of Commentaire (France's leading intellectual quarterly) sees France's "naive superiority" toward the Americans.

 France is burdened with problems distant from American shores. The economy is stagnant, and the replacement of the franc by the euro has meant higher prices but not higher wages. Last Thursday, some 50,000 railroad employees poured into Paris to protest insufficient new hiring. The civil service dominates the government, which suffocates the powerless National Assembly. Michel Gurfinkel, editor of a small newsweekly, told me the press is "free but not independent" of the government.

 The lone potential breath of fresh air viewed by internal critics is flamboyant populist Nicolas Sarkozy, who is resigning as finance minister to seek leadership of France's governing party and then perhaps run for president. Although Sarkozy is unabashedly pro-American, it has not hurt him so far. But his opponent is likely to be Jacques Chirac, still waving the bloody American shirt and still hard to beat.