European Affairs

A Cordial Debate on a Love-Hate Relationship     Print

Dangerous De-Liaisons:  What's Really Behind the War between
France and the U.S.
by Jean-Marie Colombani and Walter Wells
Melville House Publishing,Hoboken NJ, 2004
166 pages

Reviewed by Reginald Dale

If, as the bard says, the course of true love never did run smooth, one would expect the course of love-hate to be even rougher. And that is indeed what emerges from this series of conversations between two leading journalists, one French and one American, who ramble briskly but intelligently through the thorny thicket of relations between their countries in an attempt to throw light on the latest rift between them. Jean-Marie Colombani is editor-in-chief of Le Monde, France's leading intellectual newspaper;Walter Wells is executive editor of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, now wholly owned by The New York Times.

The format, described in the foreword as "a cordial debate, makes for an easy read. The debate part of the book, minus notes, bibliography, etc., comes to only 145 pages; both participants are highly articulate and the discussion moves along quickly. They do not waste words on a well-worn subject, on which it is only too easy to be wordy. Often, the two debaters disagree, in a civilized manner, though sometimes they see eye to eye. The topics range from the oftenmisunderstood origins of the relationship between the two countries, when royalist France came to the aid of revolutionary America - as payback for Britain's expulsion of France from Canada - through differing U.S. and French views of the role of the State to American "cultural imperialism. For anyone interested in the complex Franco-American relationship, and for those approaching it for the first time, this little volume should be required reading.

Such a personal dialogue, however, ought not to be treated as a textbook. The Franco-American relationship is one of the most fascinating and complicated between any two countries in the world, and debate on it is both endless and often highly subjective. Others who have followed the vicissitudes of the two proud nations' mutual obsession will find plenty to disagree with in the positions of both journalists. That is not a bad thing. The main merit of these exchanges is that they are thought provoking. They offer a wide array of explanations - some conventional, some original, some positively offbeat - for the constant, prickly competition between the two nations as they each strive to impose their values on the world. We are provided with ample examples of the nonsense that the two nations often believe about each other. But after a thorough airing of French and American pride and prejudices, both participants eventually arrive at the correct conclusion that the Atlantic alliance has to make a big effort to heal its divisions.

"Obviously, the old Western alliance has to come together again, and it has to expand to every nation that might get targeted by terrorism, says Wells. Perhaps more surprising is Colombani's view that "once the Iraqi crisis is over, we will have to recreate a long-term joining of both sides of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, as veteran publisher, editor and author Luc Jacob-Duvernet writes in the foreword, "Over the course of our discussions, it became apparent that the French-American crisis is deeper than anyone would like to think. And neither the strategic changes in the Bush administration since September 2003, nor the difficulties encountered by the American Army in Iraq, have modified the givens. The accumulated resentment remains.

The clearly true implication is that many of the problems would have remained just as intractable if the French favorite, John Kerry, had won the U.S. presidential election in November. As is stated later in the book, the disagreement over Iraq "is not merely a misunderstanding among individual men. Wells rightly explains that "distrust of the French is almost in the American DNA.He adds, more debatably, that this is particularly true of George Bush, but then makes a fundamental point that is often ignored by students of Franco- American relations. "There's basically no French element in the American melting pot, no votes to solicit, no Bastille Day parade down Fifth Avenue for him [Bush] to lead, Wells says. In short, there are very few French-Americans, at least compared to Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans, Polish-Americans or even, although they never claim the title, British-Americans.

Despite its many perceptive insights, the book has two weaknesses, one small, one more important. The first is that it seems to have been rushed into print in order to ride the crest of anger and vituperation between the two countries that erupted over the Iraq War in 2003. The services of a fact-checker appear to have been dispensed with, leading to some unfortunate errors and omissions.

Thus there is a reference at one point to the United States when the speaker means the European Union. Hubert Vedrine, the former French Foreign Minister, is credited with having invented the term "superpower to describe the United States, when of course the word he coined was the much more provocative "hyperpower. The participants tend to say things like "I believe it was so-and-so who said . . . causing the reader to wonder if it really was.

None of this matters too much in a book that is by definition "journalistic. The more important weakness is that the two participants are unevenly matched. The American Wells, who has lived in France for nearly a quarter of a century, knows much about more France than the French Colombani knows about America.

Colombani's frequent misunderstandings of the United States are enough to dismay the relatively objective reader (this reviewer being a francophile Englishman currently living in America). Colombani odiously compares the current U.S. conservative leadership to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the extreme right-wing French nationalist and apologist for Nazi Germany. And he gives credence to left-wing propagandist claims that Vice President Dick Cheney decided to invade Iraq to make money for Halliburton - or, alternatively, that America went to war "to carry out the will of God. Even more incredibly, Colombani sums up the program of the late President Ronald Reagan as "deregulation, obliteration of the State and capital punishment. It is true of course that Reagan favored deregulation, although it started under his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. On the other hand, while Reagan argued that government was often "the problem, not the solution, he certainly did not advocate "obliteration of the State, whatever that might mean in a modern democracy. And if one had to choose a third point to summarize Reagan's program, it is beyond ludicrous to choose "capital punishment, which was never even an issue during his presidency. How about "winning the Cold War or "restoring America's self-confidence as a world power? Or, if you want to stay with domestic policy, "cutting taxes to spur economic growth? Colombani, like so many Europeans, seems unaware that support for capital punishment is not a monopoly of rightwing American politicians, nor an issue on which they need to campaign. Nearly every single Republican or Democratic candidate for president has been in favor of capital punishment - including Bill Clinton, who rushed back to Arkansas to sign the death warrant of a retarded man during his first presidential election campaign. The death penalty, of course, plays only a minor role in this discourse. But Colombani's misunderstanding of the issue exemplifies a broader tendency to trot out the worst kinds of caricatures of America that run rampant among French intellectuals. In the end, this serves a useful purpose. It gives the reader a glimpse into the depths of incomprehension and ignorance that underlie so many European characterizations of the United States. To be fair to Colombani, it is not always clear whether he is citing examples of anti- American propaganda, or whether he actually believes them. On his home territory, Colombani is much more impressive. He presents a particularly incisive thumbnail portrait of President Jacques Chirac, who, he says, "has constructed his public persona on the image of the nice guy, simple and absolutely not cultivated. The reality, however, is just opposite: he is very cultivated, very complex and, in politics, a killer.

Á¡Chirac is always wearing a mask,Á± Colombani continues. Á¡And he didn't appreciate the fact that someone mirrored the public image of the simple man which he created for himself.Á± The basic paradox is that Bush (like Reagan before him) is victim of the same stereotypes as Chirac, he says. Á¡With Bush, Chirac has fallen into his own trap- presumably by underestimating him. Bush, of course, who never wears a mask, also has an expert political killer instinct. And the leadership styles of both countries can be remarkably similar. Both believe they have a monopoly of universal values and tend to boss their allies around.Wells says some European Ambassadors Á¡talk about France in the same tones that are implicit when France talks about the United States.Á± As a psychologist might confirm, you need something in common to have a proper love-hate relationship.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number III in the Fall of 2004.