It is eight years now since the United States had a really reliable enemy, some national Other it could look to as an embodiment of everything wrong-headed and contrary to nature. There was of course Iraq, with its cartoon-like dictator, but that nation never really made the grade. Too local, too blatant, too ideologically puzzling. No, they needed a state with recognisable economic policies, policies they could understand… Understand and then caricature as an intentional rejection of the glorious new age of cyber-globalism that everyone from the computer industry to President Bill Clinton has been talking up of late.
In 1997 that painful emptiness was filled at last. Everywhere one turned, it seemed, pundits were joining forces with journalists, corporate spokesmen and the Madison Avenue admen to persuade their audiences of two things: the triumph of the American corporate order… and the backwardness of France, a country where labour unions remained powerful and the welfare state was still largely intact.
Roger Cohen, the Paris correspondent of the New York Times, enumerated in February 1997 the many ways in which the French were out of step. They didn’t understand the Internet, they didn’t like America, and they still clung to a “socialist” system (this, months before socialists were actually voted into office) in which “technocrats” run everything and labour unions are far, far too powerful. By October, Cohen was ready to pronounce the ultimate judgement on this vexing nation. “France has set itself up as perhaps the nearest thing the United States has to a serious ideological rival in the last decade of the 20th century (1)”.
The French “wrongheadedness” story fits so many favourite assumptions into such a neat package that it has proven virtually irresistible to the partisans of the new global order. Take, for example, the recent American Express commercial that features the rise of snowboard entrepreneur Jake Burton. The ad uses a succession of leaping athletes to insinuate Burton’s supreme credentials, then nails the image down by juxtaposing our hero and his multicultural followers with brief shots of the anti-entrepreneurial Other: cautious couch-bound oldsters along with a troupe of skiers, decked out in expensive gear and sneering contemptuously at this upstart of a sport – snowboarding – that will never capture the hearts of the People. Although these doubting skiers are on the screen for only a few seconds, the commercial’s makers want there to be no mistake about their identity as snobs of the first order. So the skiers speak with accents. French accents.
The literary magazine Granta ran an editorial in its autumn 1997 number which dismissed France’s refusal to acknowledge the inevitability of globalism as just another capricious effort “to preserve its cherished ideas of Frenchness” (2). Throw in a few mandatory details like the rise of the xenophobic politician, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the story virtually writes itself.
Prejudice run riot
As this is an age in which free trade is equated with freedom and markets are confused with democracy, Americans naturally regard any effort to stand aside from the market as an act of unpardonable pretentiousness, of arrogant disregard for the Will of the People. And at such a time, the French make a perfect enemy. Not only have their various governments resisted American demands that wages be lowered, benefits slashed and national health plans gutted. Leaving French unions free to deny the “reforms” that every American manager knows to be a mandatory element of global “competitiveness”. What’s more, the French have always figured in the American imagination as first-class snobs.
Even the most casual followers of the news in America know that France is a country that restricts American movies, that periodically tries to stamp out English-derived words, that feels it must educate kindergarten children about traditional French cuisine. They are a stubborn people swimming mulishly against the tide, both culturally and economically. They have a martinet government preventing people from riding the ecstatic waves of commerce revered by the new corporate order. They are a nation of uptight killjoys bent on ruining the sweet American buzz that everyone else is burning to hear.
Whether it’s rude waiters mocking your request for ketchup, skiers turning up their noses at snowboarders or social planners seeking to soften the blows of the global economy, it’s all one and the same: the nifty possibility of mixing stereotype with economic crusading has been too much for the culture-warriors of the new global order to resist.
It’s hard to flick between channels in the US without hearing some slur regarding the French. Insinuations of French pig-headedness find their way into a corporate pep talk rally broadcast by NPR. A New Republic editorial mocks the French for voting so foolishly and wrongly in their parliamentary elections. But by far the most persistent American persecutor of France has been the New York Times, where Europe correspondents and op/ed writers bang out a steady, if sometimes far-fetched anti-Gallic drumbeat. Virtually every week there’s some memorable image or hilarious French foul-up to report. Like the French intellectual who was found writing a dissertation on the impact of the Internet with a pen! Or that great photo of a French cabinet minister staring at a computer with an astonished look on his face!
Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ free-market Savonarola, laid down the terms of the conflict between global democracy and French arrogance in his column on 26 February. For Friedman, the basic facts of the world economic situation are as plain and as beyond debate as they are for, say, the advertisers of American Express. Everywhere in the world “the pressures of technology and the global economy are forcing nations to shift power from the once-dominant state bureaucracy and monopolies to the private sector”.
But somehow the French insist on impeding the mighty flow of history. They are, quite simply, “people who feel the world is changing and they want to stop it, not master it”. And the key to this wrongheaded, reactionary impulse is culture, the kind of culture that anyone who’s watched a James Dean movie or a car commercial or a lifetime of prime-time sitcoms knows instinctively to abhor. “The French system rewards people for their capacity to follow the path laid out for them,” a friendly “expert” tells Friedman. Meanwhile, the American system teaches people “to rebel.”
The French disease, in other words, is not just a case of economic error: it’s the familiar American melodrama of rebel vs. bureaucrat, the Internet vs. the Academie Francaise, the People vs. the intellectuals. In this contest, according to Friedman, there can be no question which side is in the right. It’s as if we were back to the early days of the cold war. France – land of unions and welfare-slackers – is doing no less than “play(ing) footsy with the enemies of America, who are often the enemies of modernity”.
But Friedman is only building on the foundations constructed by Roger Cohen of the New York Times, whose reporting from Paris repeatedly falls back on the darkest American stereotypes about French arrogance and snobbery as explanatory devices. For Cohen, the French don’t just have problems: every economic move that they make can be traced to their objectionable cultural traits. Their “hankering for grandeur,” their “excessive pretensions,” their “notion of occupying a position close to the centre of the world,” all these facets of national vanity prevent them from embracing the exciting multicultural future. And the need to “nourish the French ego” makes it difficult to predict which silly political scheme they will vote into power next.
Still deluded by Charles de Gaulle’s notion of “a certain idea of France,” Cohen believes France is a country that “sits in concrete,” a place of “internal paralysis” that is “threatened by innovation,” where entrepreneurship is strongly discouraged, where “technocrats… appear overtaken by the global economy” and where unions, “parading the rags of an exhausted socialist dream… seem equally fossilised”.
Rebellious youth almost the only hope
Are there any redeeming features? The New York Times correspondent sees a few, preferably certain exemplary Amis du Peuple. There is software baron Bernard Liautaud – doubtless the kind of corporate boss who decorates his office walls with inspirational sayings about snowboarding rather than skiing – who antagonised “the Paris establishment” with egalitarian ideas he picked up at Stanford like “Promote a shareholding culture” and “Think marketing.”
Then there is the little parable of Chateau d’Yquem, a vineyard embroiled in an ownership controversy between two people, one of whom “represents the soil; the other the market.” Can you guess which characteristics go with which? While the “market” is Bernard Arnault, a “restless entrepreneur” whose upstart ways make him a dealer in “bruised egos, the “soil” is matched up with a vainglorious aristocrat, a daft son of luxury found musing poignantly on a stopped clock (3).
The other side of the story, which Cohen tells with obvious excitement, is the glorious and irresistible progress of American mass culture, which he apparently believes magically reflects the will of the People in all their global-marketed majesty. Under a photo of roller skaters doing stunts in front of the Eiffel Tower, Cohen hails the irrepressible youth of France, enthusiastic partisans of the global market, who daringly consume the latest American youth-culture products despite the warnings of their anti-American elders. “The reversed baseball cap, basketball shoes, American movies and music… these are the frame of reference of a majority of French kids. The anti-Americanism glibly wheeled out by intellectuals and politicians finds little echo among ordinary French people.”
It is, of course, more than a bit problematic to understand mass culture as such a transparent expression of popular tastes. But Cohen seems to feel no need to make any difficult distinctions when the people in question are French and the culture in question is American. Even when the Americanisation at hand is clearly the product of some corporate machination or other, Cohen celebrates it as a signal of imminent victory for the People – and the global market – over French arrogance. A front-page story on the celebration of Halloween in France acknowledges that the holiday was introduced to France by a number of prominent corporate sponsors anxious for something to spark consumer interest. Yet the article still insists on understanding the French Halloween in terms of a conflict between the desires of the People – in this case, shoppers at a department store and spokesmen for department stores and telephone manufacturers – and the exhausted anti-Americanism of the country’s elitist cultural mandarins. And again the Times chose to run the story under a photographic juxtaposition of the proud Eiffel Tower with thousands of pumpkins placed by one of the holiday’s corporate sponsors (4).
But it is in forcing this “idée fixe” onto French politics that Cohen’s reporting really begins to waver. To interpret the entire French political spectrum according to an idea, cultural arrogance vs. the inherent democracy of markets, that has little to do with the actual issues under debate in that country, tends to produce a curious ideological flattening.
Since suspicion of the market is tantamount to suspicion of the People in general, and since suspicion of global markets is tantamount to racism, one French figure is naturally invoked: the racist and xenophobic Jean-Marie Le Pen, for whom the French mood “provides a perfect feeding ground”. Cohen’s description of events and opinions in France points clearly to Le Pen as the inevitable figure of the moment, the perfect reactionary for this backward-looking country. In his reporting, other politicians come off as Le Pens minus the racism, or Le Pens minus the Europhobia. All elections can be described as victories to some degree for Le Pen’s party, the National Front. So convincing and internally cohesive is Cohen’s vision of Le Pen as the man of the moment, that readers must feel quite confused when they read later on that, in fact, the National Front has not won the national elections and that Le Pen does not hold any national office.
The confusion that arises from Cohen’s accounts of Socialist leader Lionel Jospin, the man who has actually been elected prime minister, is even worse. Clearly regarding Jospin as the product of the same retrograde anti-market feeling that has produced Le Pen, Cohen simply dismisses him as a less interesting, but still glib wheeler-out of anti-Americanism. Another incorrigible Frenchman given to the vainglorious desire to stand up to market forces… When covering Jospin’s policy proposals, Cohen tries to demonstrate the folly of his ways. His 11 October account in the New York Times of Jospin’s effort to reduce the French working week, for example, dismisses the whole idea by juxtaposing it with statements from employers’ organisations, assertions that the really successful countries in Europe are no longer considering such market-unfriendly schemes. And, to top it all, the opinion of an economist at the Smith-Barney investment house. “The problem with these ideas is that they preserve the fantasy that this is the direction in which to go.”
This is foreign correspondence as morality play, the news from France transformed into as polished a fable of the beneficence of global capitalism as a TV commercial for a computer manufacturer. And as exuberant a vision of rebellious youth as the collective paid daydreams of Nike, Reebok, Pepsi, Coke, and Sprite…
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