England, Germany, Spain, Italy and Mexico are all countries that have been at war with America at one time or another. Paris is even the US' oldest military ally. As Jacques Chirac likes to say, "we have been friends for 225 years."
According to historian Michel Winock, this, however, has not prevented France "from being the country in which anti-Americanism is and remains most active." Now the point seems to have been reached at which the big brother across the Atlantic no longer sees such hot flashes as entirely harmless events. "We Americans must be clear about one thing," concluded the influential columnist Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, "France is not simply our unpleasant ally. It is not merely our jealous rival. France is becoming our enemy."
When Chirac was asked about the Friedman article ("Our War with France"), he just shrugged his shoulders: "Who is he, anyway?" But when he addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York the week before last, it became quite clear to the French President that his colleague George W. Bush had declared a cold war against him.
The man in charge at the White House demonstratively left the assembly hall before Chirac stood up to speak. Bush was not interested in listening to reprimands, and possibly even having to listen politely to the Frenchman say, to the roaring applause of the assembled heads of state: "No one can act in the name of us all. No one may claim the right to resort to force, unilaterally and preventively."
After the speech, one UN representative concluded that Chirac had become the herald of a new world order "that is anti-American, anti-Bush." Before meeting with Chirac, Bush grimly said "I will remind him of it, and I will tell him, clearly and unmistakably, that America is a good nation, a good nation to its core." His National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice made sure that no photographers were permitted to record the unavoidable handshake between the two leaders.
"Bush has not changed his theories, but he has changed his tone. He is not as arrogant as before," Chirac told his advisors following his frosty conversation with Bush. "The truth of the matter is that I don't care. What is important is that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and the majority of countries are on our side."
In fact, Chirac's criticism of American unilateralism has made the French president into a popular leader with a global following, as the ovations in the UN General Assembly demonstrated. The French head of state is the voice of resistance against the hegemonic USA, the custodian of international law, the spokesman of a broad but loosely knit coalition of nations uncomfortable with Bush' vendetta against "evil."
Chirac has cleverly understood how to shift the balance of power to his benefit. He embodies the attractiveness of the "gentle power" against the "hard power," America, thereby depriving Bush of the moral foundation on which his crusade for freedom and democracy ultimately rests. This reversal of fronts has embittered the deeply religious US president. The Frenchman, who, in the American world view, has become the malicious, underhanded cynic in the old European tradition of Richelieu and Talleyrand, is suddenly making Bush seem self-righteous, arrogant and bigoted.
At home, Chirac's words feed into the Gallic longing for lost glory, something for which Paris would otherwise lack the necessary means. "France Versus the Empire" is the title of a book by political scientist Pascal Boniface. Former Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine calls his collection of speeches and essays "Eye to Eye with the Hyperpower." Such slogans are balm for the soul of a nation that in truth fears globalization and, ever since its defeat at Waterloo in 1815, has been periodically sinking into a depressive fear of decline.
The historian and social scientist Philippe Roger predicts a lively future for French anti-Americanism, the origins of which he has researched in an extensive work ("The American Enemy"). In his opinion, anti-Americanism has fueled France' burning desire to shine as an ideal nation for the past 200 years.
When seen in this light, the French position toward the United States is not characterized by dislike and enmity, but by jealousy. The two countries, the world's oldest modern republics, both see themselves as twin sisters in a beauty contest, as daughters of the enlightenment. Since the end of the 18th century, the Bill of Rights and the declaration of human and civil rights have served as their central doctrines.
Since the end of Communism, they are the only states that feel universally entitled, seeing themselves as the model civilizations for all others - two missionary nations spreading their models of freedom and justice into the world with an enthusiasm bordering on religious fervor.
In this self-image, Paris is the new Athens, the "ville lumière," the city of light and spirit, and America is the new Jerusalem. Ronald Reagan, another US president who saw himself as a moral apostle, and under whom Bush' father served as vice-president, liked to call the United States the "shining city on the hill."
Unlike America, France can no longer conduct this crusade of ideals with fire and sword, as it did in colonial days. This explains Chirac's virtually obsessive desire to transform Europe into an equal but not superior major power. Under French leadership, of course.
Modern French diplomacy has its roots in an old trauma: the Suez crisis of 1956, when Washington, with a nod from Moscow, stopped the Franco-British expedition against Nasser's Egypt. While Great Britain obediently joined the ranks of US supporters, France moved toward independence from the great superpower. Charles de Gaulle's nuclear "force de frappe," his military withdrawal from NATO and his European policy, which had always been anti-American, were the consequences.
Chirac, who began his political career 40 years ago under de Gaulle, views himself as the executor of the General's will in a changed world. According to Le Monde, Chirac's stance toward the United States, like that the founding fathers of the Fifth Republic, is based on the principle "I annoy, therefore I am."
Like de Gaulle, Chirac is not particularly anti-American in his personal views. But he knows that anti-Americanism is the ideal material with which to unite and give confidence to a nation that is so internally divided, between the left and the right, between Communism and Catholicism.
Some of the great minds of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Buffon, already saw America as an unfortunate continent. Talleyrand found his brief exile in Philadelphia abominable. Joseph de Maistre, the sharpest critic of the French Revolution, viewed America as a regrettable "aberration." Writers from Stendhal through Baudelaire to Georges Bernanos and Paul Claudel complained about America's lack of intellectualism. Sartre's advice was to discontinue the dialogue with the United States, a country he believed had "gone crazy," and declared that "America is not the center of the world."
Social scientist Roger believes that layer upon layer of anti-Americanism have been solidifying in French intellectual discourse, within both the conservative and progressive elite. These deposits have served as fertile ground for recurring political conflicts. During the American Civil War, Emperor Napoleon III was openly sympathetic with the secessionist southern states. Georges Clemenceau, the "Tiger" of World War I, had a falling-out with US President Woodrow Wilson, and de Gaulle, the head of liberated France, quarreled with Franklin D. Roosevelt.
And now we have Chirac and Bush. Is "Mr. Un-America," as Newsweek called the French head of state, playing with fire? Can the great rift be overcome, or is it divorce this time around?
Chirac was a perfect gentlemen last week at the Elysée Palace, when he greeted and bid farewell to Laura Bush, her husband's emissary to UNESCO, by kissing her hand. "A Damsel in Distress," smirked the New York Post in describing "Chirac's lip service."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan