I’ve just spent several weeks in France, in part to get a firsthand look at Franco-American relations on the street in 2009. A few observations, past and present…
For the last number of decades — there has been a clear “love-hate” relationship between France and the U.S. My experience in the country over the last 25 years reveals that French perceptions of Americans generally tipped positive until about the year 2000.
For young French people, Americans were mostly regarded favorably in large part due to its economic power that yielded so much “cool stuff” that they in France didn’t have access to, but wanted. From mid-age and older French citizens, it was the U.S. role in France during the two World Wars that significantly contributed to an overall positive rapport.
But Americans were also disliked over these years for a variety of reasons, including what some see as a jealousy of U.S. economic/political dominance in the world that France once enjoyed. Said dominance came hand-in-hand with (arguably) an inevitable culture of mounting arrogance, not unlike the perception of French arrogance which stems from rhetoric on French superiority by former General and President Charles de Gaulle after WWII. All this, along with the French perception of American lack of savoir vivre, was perceived as threatening the French way of life.
Fast forward to 2009 in a fully globalized economy, France enjoys much of the economic buying power and all of the cool stuff it wants. And the economic crisis has reinforced long-standing French notions of the hazards of over-consumption and lack of regulation that were used as justification against following U.S. market practices. And the recent military interventions, particularly in the George W. Bush years, run harshly counter to French political ideology. Severe criticism mounts these days as well on topics that range from the poor U.S. education system and the lack of regard for the environment, as well as an ongoing culture of excesses.
Is there anything, then, which the French look favorably upon, relative to the American culture?
Certainly there is admiration for the physical beauty of the country as a whole, the country’s geographic diversity, and also for the unique cultural “can-do” optimism. And those who have traveled to the U.S. have attested to being treated very well in the U.S. Of course, the Obama factor doesn’t hurt either, but it would be premature at this point to label the French anything more than “tentative-skeptic” vis-à-vis the U.S.