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French Anti-Americanism and McDonald's

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David Ellwood shows how anti-American feelings today have roots and parallels in the past.

The year is 1930, the writer Georges Duhamel, popular Parisian commentator:

I was born in a country whose soul, inhabitants and products are diverse, motley, changing and ingenious. From milk, this simple and elementary food, we Frenchmen know how to make more than 100 kinds of cheese. All are good, healthy, strong, substantial and amusing. All have their history, character and role. In this feature alone, I recognise the genius of my country, in it I understand that she has produced so many great men in all professions ... I belong to a peasant people which has cultivated lovingly for centuries 50 different plums and which finds in each one a deliciously incomparable taste.

Duhamel wrote this in a powerful diatribe warning Europeans, and Frenchmen in particular, that unless they took steps to protect their traditions, values and identities, the system of advanced industrialism which modernity had produced in America would soon overwhelm them. Seventy years later the same battle is being fought, this time by a farmers’ leader, José Bové, who in August 1999 broke up the site of a new McDonald’s restaurant in his home town of Millau, and almost instantly became a sort of national hero. Bové was briefly arrested, led a delegation of supporters to the Seattle conference of the World Trade Organisation in November 1999 (smuggling in a Roquefort cheese), and in July 2000 was put on trial in the midst of a ‘happening’ which brought 40,000 young people to Millau and the attention of international media. 

Meanwhile the Parisian bookshops were once more filling up with titles deploring American society and its overweening foreign policy: No Thanks, Uncle SamThe World Is Not Merchandise, Who Is Killing France?, The American Strategy, and others. The American Ambassador commented: ‘The Anti-Americanism today encompasses not a specific policy like Iranian sanctions but a feeling that globalisation has an American face on it and is a danger to the European and French view of society ... There is the sense that America is such an extraordinary power that it can crush everything in its way.’ The feeling certainly seemed to be shared by the government. Foreign minister Hubert Védrine was quoted as saying that America’s role in 20th-century European history did not give it the rights of a sixteenth member of the European Union. Only the French government explicitly presented the birth of the Euro as an antidote to the strength of the dollar.

‘It’s important to understand why a new stridency has crept into France’s warnings about American power’, commented the Wall Street Journal Europe in late February 1999. The problem, suggested interviewees, was the insecurity of the élites. In culture, diplomacy and political culture, they looked ever more beleaguered, overtaken and outpaced by the appeal of American dress-styles to their children, of fast-food to their youth, and of Hollywood to their cinema audiences. ‘The government, and the élites, realise that culture, writ large, is a battle that they’re losing. They’re very jealous of America’s power to seduce,’ Alain Franchon, an editorial writer for Le Monde, was quoted as saying. ‘When faced with that you have to fight, even if you risk looking ridiculous.’

Jack Lang, the man who brought a new prominence to these questions in his years as Minister of Culture under President Mitterand, recently insisted that if the nation’s heritage was not to dwindle into insignificance, economics and culture should learn to live together in France, so that France would be better placed to ‘bet on the future’. Calling for a new Ministry of External Cultural Relations, Lang demanded more energy, more openness, more international operations by French television channels and a whole-hearted build-up of a European identity ‘of imagination, youth and spirit’. Either the Old World could remain frozen in the shadow of American culture, in which case diplomatic subjection would soon follow, said Lang. Or Europe, under France’s powerful impulse, could show all those peoples wishing to seek an alternative to US domination, that ‘the West is declined in the plural. A message of hope.’ 

The leading French international relations expert, Dominique Moisi, believes that to resolve the nation’s fundamental identity problem, which is whether to be ‘a modern, normal country’ or one which is different, even exceptional, the French must stop bewailing globalisation and America’s role in it, give up cultural protectionism and refurbish instead their own message: ‘What France should seek to preserve – once it has conceded defeat in the language battle – is the context and originality of its message, not its medium.’ Jean-Marie Guéhenno, an expert on the State and national identity, is pessimistic about the chances of such a strategy being given a chance to work. Anti-Americanism is probably growing, he writes, ‘in spite of claims to the contrary and in spite of the success of American culture among French people.’ It is, he says, a dangerous development which isolates France and encourages people ‘to withdraw in to a world of illusions in which la francophonie stands up to les anglo-saxons in the same way that Astérix confronted the Roman Empire.’  And sure enough, within months of this warning, on February 3rd, 1999, the French film industry brought out to great acclaim its most expensive production ever: Astérix and Obélix against Caesar. It was, said Le Monde, a superproduction which represented the very image of  national resistance against American cinematic imperialism.

Anti-Americanism is certainly an ambiguous form of  response to America’s presence as a power in Europe. Its more ideological manifestations often reflect the proselytising fashion in which America presents the lessons of its history to the world. When a unique national experience is characterised in the language of ‘exceptionalism’, then it’s not suprising that opponents reject the way of life as well as the message, the symbols as well as the actions. In the French case, writes the American specialist on France Richard Kuisel,

the basis of anti-Americanism is cultural and pivots on the notion of protecting and disseminating civilisation. Though differences over international relations, trade and economics will continue to stir criticism of the hegemonic Western power, the core of resistance derives from a sense of French difference, superiority and universal mission – all bound in the term civilisation. The implied universality of civilisation breeds competition with the United States because America has its own sense of universal mission.

But contemporary anti-Americanism is more than just  a pseudo-ideological posture. Behind it lies the baggage of images and stereotypes about the new nation which European visitors accumulated throughout the nineteenth century. Then came America’s development of an ideologically dynamic and disruptive model of modernisation in the 1920s. And the shared trans-Atlantic experience of two World Wars and the Cold War also left a legacy of attitudes. Without all these historical precedents and pretexts, the ascendancy of US power since the Second World War would never have attracted the resentments and antagonisms which classical anti-Americanism has expressed in a country like France. Today the true parallel of America’s position vis à vis the Old World is not the Pax Britannica of the nineteenth century, but the 1920s. At that time Fordism, Hollywood, Jazz, dance-halls, new forms of advertising, leisure pursuits and role models swept through post-First World War Europe, and antagonised traditional élites engaged in the difficult business of reconstituting their power and legitimacy.  ‘Americanism’ was a phrase already current in the mid-nineteenth century which recognised that nation’s unique inheritance of ideals and aspirations. The use of the term ‘Anti-Americanism’ started in the 1920s. The transatlantic grievances of the time – war debts and reparations, naval competition, the force of  the new mass culture – now began to be expressed in a language which connected  American politics and foreign policy with what were perceived to be the nation’s defects as a society and a civilisation.

In France this new critical attitude produced books which were destined to acquire lasting significance as trend-setters in the critique of America’s likely impact on the nation’s future. The most famous was Duhamel’s Scènes de la vie future (1930). The most  authoritative was political commentator André Siegfried’s Les Etats-unis d'aujourd'hui, a discussion of all the issues outstanding between France and the US at the time. The politician and diplomat André Tardieu provided Devant l'obstacle: L'Amérique et nous, while the work of the business journalist Lucien Romier, Qui sera le maître, Europe ou Amérique?, was a thoroughgoing critique of mass society and America’s responsibility for diffusing it. All were best-sellers and they set a pattern which would later include René Etiemble’s Parlez-vous franglais? (1964) and Jean Jacques Servan-Schreiber’s Le défi américaine (1967). The first of these opened the vexed question of language and called for a campaign which would rescue the French cultural heritage from the American ‘air-conditioned nightmare’, just as de Gaulle was doing in international relations and economics. Servan-Schreiber’s even more influential production called for a Europeanisation of America’s most successful technical and social features, just as he had invented L’Express, a French version of Time or Newsweek. From the 1960s too came the radical, Third World-ist critique of  American imperialism best articulated by Le Monde’s international affairs supplement Le Monde diplomatique, which continues this tradition today. 

The 1990s shifted the argument back to the influence of Hollywood’s film and television output, reviving a debate which had provoked strong impulses of cultural protectionism in the 1920s and 1940s. At the 1993 GATT talks on world trade the French audiovisual industry, strongly supported by the socialist president and the conservative government, led efforts to have its products removed entirely from the purview of the negotiations, on the grounds that free trade invariably favoured the most powerful producers. No single country ‘should be allowed to control the images of the whole world,’ Mitterand declared in October 1993; ‘what is at stake is the cultural identity of our nations, the right of each people to its own culture’. If Jurassic Park could be attacked as a threat to French national identity, as it had been some months earlier by the Minister of Culture, then this was not simply about the balance of economic power between the French cinema industry and Hollywood. A position like this reflected a sense of  being forced to give up ‘a concept of nationhood that presumed sovereignty over culture’, as the American historian Victoria de Grazia has written, talking of Hollywood’s impact in the 1920s. 

Until recently the battle of cultural sovereignty has been over languages, images and expectations, over the minds of one’s own younger generations. Now the battle seems to be shifting to the stomach. As a target for generalised abuse of American commercial intrusiveness the McDonald’s chain has faced levels of  aggression in France which never troubled its predecessors of the 1940s and 1950s, Reader’s Digest and Coca-Cola. Although contested from Hampstead to Hamburg, from Florence to Cracow, opposition has not been directed at other fast-food vendors, no other chain has seen an employee killed by a terrorist attack, as happened in Brittany in April 2000. In France the first McDonald’s opened in Strasbourg in 1979. Twenty years later 790 restaurants were functioning, after expanding at the rate of around 80 per year since the middle of the decade. The company’s annual report for 1999 announced that Europe was McDonald’s most successful global sector, and within Europe France was one of its leading countries. In the meantime hundreds of traditional bistros and bars have closed up and down the country, victims of changing tastes and a punitive tax regime which, said a chefs’ protest in Paris in October 1999, directly favoured the fast food industry. 

The McDonald’s experience in France shows how relatively small symbols of American economic power, because of their visibility, ubiquity and dynamism, are still the ones expected to bear the most disproportionate burden of  anti-Americanist resentment, as local citizens and consumers attempt to pit their influence against that of corporations once merely ‘multinational’ but now turned global. In 1999 Bové’s protest against the Big Mac was sparked by the inclusion of Roquefort cheese among a cluster of European goods punished by the US with high import tariffs, a protest against European refusal to take unlimited supplies of hormone-raised beef. The cheese’s timeless manufacture required the kind of unsullied milk Bové’s farm supplied;  but now, under the conditions of globalisation, ‘the Americans could cancel your business at the push of a computer button’, as the new national hero said to a television interviewer. Le Monde meanwhile criticised an America ‘whose commercial hegemony menaces agriculture and whose cultural hegemony insidiously ruins culinary customs, the sacred gleams of French identity’.

Wherever ancient, modern and post-modern meet in contemporary Europe, the chances are that some version of the twentieth’s century’s long, intense and complicated encounter between American and European mass culture is being re-enacted. With food moving abruptly up the list of contested areas – elbowing aside such staples as movies and technology, business and language, television and intellectual fashion – the encounter seems likely to take on a more bitter flavour. In a 1988 discussion the leading French specialist Marie-France Toinet emphasised the need to distinguish between the external manifestations of anti-American sentiment and their roots. The ‘important thing about the French fascination for and rejection of Americanism’ was that:

The French are not so much holding a debate about the United States but about themselves, about their society, their goals and their methods. It is, so to say, a Franco-French debate, where American arguments – often half-baked – are just an excuse or a pretence. The French hold up the United States as a mirror to look, in fact, at themselves.

But the pressures of social and technological change, of the imbalance of cultural power between America and  France, are real enough, now as in the 1920s. Even if in no way comparable to the nation’s historic enmities with the British and the Germans, the anti-American leaning in French political and intellectual thought persists. As the twenty-first century opens, France remains the nation which worries most intensely about American power in international life. It is a debate which tries to correlate the political, economic and mass cultural dimensions of that power with the big contemporary questions of sovereignty and globalisation, identity and modernity.

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