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France/U.S.: Bush Visit Unlikely To Lessen French Anti-Americanism

  • Joel Blocker

Has U.S. President George Bush's two-day trip to France served to ease the always-difficult postwar relations between the two countries? Has the visit served to reduce the country's current wave of popular anti-Americanism?

Paris, 27 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- George W. Bush's first-ever visit to France -- either as U.S. president or a private citizen -- was aimed primarily at enhancing the two countries' decades-long troublesome bilateral relations.

But perhaps no less important, the two-day stopover (26-27 May) sought to improve popular attitudes both toward Bush personally and the United States in general, in a country the British weekly "The Economist" calls (in its 25 May issue) "the spiritual home of [European] disgruntlement" with America.

The first goal, bettering bilateral relations, remains a difficult -- but perhaps achievable -- one. But the second, reducing popular French anti-Americanism, may be impossible to achieve for the moment.

During the Bush visit, both the U.S. leader and his host, newly re-elected French conservative President Jacques Chirac, went out of their way to accentuate the positive in their personal, as well as national, relations. At their joint press conference yesterday at Paris's presidential Elysee Palace, Bush praised Chirac as a friend and valued adviser: "I appreciate this good man's [Chirac's] advice. I listen carefully to it when he gives it, and I'm proud to call him a friend."

Bush also recalled that very soon after the 11 September terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, Chirac had telephoned him to say, "I am your friend." Unmentioned but certainly remembered by Bush, Chirac was also the first world leader to visit him after he won election late last year and also the first to tour the "Ground Zero" site of the destroyed World Trade Center towers in New York.

Bush yesterday also expressed gratitude for France's cooperation in sharing intelligence about suspected terrorists. These included French citizen Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested in the United States a month before the 11 September attacks and has since been indicted for his role in the terrorist plot.

Bush said that in Europe, France "takes the lead in hunting down the people who would harm America."

In turn, Chirac yesterday remained silent or discrete in his public remarks about U.S. policies that the French government has openly castigated in recent months. These include Washington's renunciation of the Kyoto Protocol, which would reduce worldwide pollution emissions; the U.S. withdrawal from the newly established International Criminal Tribunal; and the Bush administration's recent decision to subsidize U.S. steel exports.

Chirac went even further in his public support of Bush. While an anti-Bush demonstration of some 5,000 trod the streets of a rainy Paris, decrying U.S. "unilateralism," the French leader characterized this display as "completely marginal" and not reflecting a "national antipathy" toward the United States.

Bush himself shrugged off the Paris protest march and a similar demonstration that had greeted him late last week in Berlin. "I don't view hostility here. I view the fact that we've got a lot of friends here and I'm grateful for the friendship. The fact that protesters show up, that's good. It means I'm in a democracy. I'm traveling to a country that respects other people's points of view. But I feel very comfortable coming to Europe. I feel very comfortable coming to France. I've got a lot of friends here."

As for his differences with European leaders in general, Bush was more succinct. "Look, the only thing I know to do is to speak my mind, to talk about my values."

U.S. diplomats in Paris, who requested anonymity, warn against discounting Bush's praise of Chirac as mere rhetoric. They say the U.S. administration was pleased with the defeat of France's former prime minister, Lionel Jospin, in last month's presidential election -- and not only because Chirac is a conservative like Bush.

Jospin was a long-time covert Trotskyist before he entered a Socialist government in the 1980s. In that decade and in his five years as Socialist premier (1997-2002), U.S. officials regarded him as a "visceral anti-American," who occasionally demonstrated that quality in public.

Jospin's foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, was the man who coined the term "hyper-puissance," or hyperpower, to describe the current U.S. international role. Vedrine also denounced U.S. foreign policy under Bush as "unilateralist," and after Bush made his "axis of evil" speech earlier this year, he called the U.S. worldview "simplistic."

U.S. officials in Paris are anticipating relatively easier relations with the French government if the Chirac-led right-center coalition wins next month's legislative election -- which many pollsters and analysts now say is likely. But the diplomats do not believe that a significant reduction in French popular anti-Americanism is in the offing soon.

Recent polls show that in France -- as in Germany -- a majority of those questioned expressed a negative view of the United States. This would appear to be based largely on Vedrine's now-widespread notion of the United States as a hyper-puissance -- or as the sole giant Goliath in a world of tiny Davids.

In today's French daily "Figaro," analyst Alain-Gerard Slama addresses that phenomenon directly. He says French anti-Bush demonstrations -- there was a second one in the Normandy town of Caen yesterday -- would be of no importance if they were only made up of some old leftovers from what he calls France's "eternal anti-American left." But in fact, he notes, it's more a matter of a nonpartisan groundswell.

Slama goes on to say that the beliefs that motivate the protesters are based on what he describes as "a myth more and more widespread," the chief spokesman of which was Vedrine. That myth, he says, makes of the United States "the sole gendarme of the world."

Slama and other French analysts of a similar mind have "deconstructed" the myth, demonstrating that the supposed Goliath has many weaknesses as well as strengths. But none of them believe that the currently popular French notion of an all-powerful United States will be easy to change in the near future.

For a short while after 11 September, a wave of sympathy for the United States engulfed France and largely made old-style anti-Americanism seem unfashionable at best, obscene at worst. As late as last month, the director of France's most influential newspaper, "Le Monde," told RFE/RL in an interview that anti-Americanism was now "irrelevant." Director Jean-Marie Colombani said that was because France, the United States, and many other developed countries now faced a common enemy -- terrorism.

But as of last week, "Le Monde" had recaptured its long-familiar rhetoric, saying Europeans regard Americans as "arrogant, bellicose, and deaf to all criticism." The paper then denounced what it called a new era of U.S. "messianism."