Commentary: France's Yank-Bashing Is Getting Sillier and Sillier
"It's not enough to succeed," said Talleyrand, the supremely cynical statesman of 18th century France. "Others must fail." Maybe that sentiment explains why a flourishing France revels in America-bashing these days. It goes far beyond the old complaints about fast food and Hollywood films. In late February, French newspapers splashed the spurious news that U.S. intelligence agencies were spying on French industries. That followed reports--originating in the Defense Ministry--that Microsoft Corp. could not be trusted because of links to the U.S. defense establishment.
In a nation long famous for clear thinking, it's hard to see the logic this time. The current wave of anti-Americanism arrives just as France is learning how to compete, American-style, in the global economy. The country is awash in venture capital. Billboards across the country display dot-com come-ons. And after years of sluggishness, the economy is roaring. So it's also hard to resist the simple conclusion that France needs more of what provokes its latter-day enrages into paroxysms of Yank-bashing--fierce, global competition, deregulation, and open markets.
Parisian writer Viviane Forrester is buying none of it. With her chunky gold bracelets and Chanel suits, she makes a peculiar firebrand. Yet she rode to fame four years ago with a best-seller, L'Horreur Economique, about U.S.-style capitalism. In her new book, Une Etrange Dictature (A Strange Dictatorship), Forrester asserts that U.S. and British mutual funds rule the globe in the name of "ultra-liberalism." The only way British and American companies make money, she argues, is by firing employees.
The book's arguments are as obsessive--and about as convincing--as accounts of alien abductions. But Forrester is no voice in the wilderness. She's popular on the talk-show circuit. And France's most respected daily Le Monde put a chunk of her new book on its Feb. 21 front page.
You can't be altogether surprised. This is the nation where Jose Bove, an iconoclastic farmer, rocketed to national acclaim last year, including a public tribute from President Jacques Chirac, after he trashed a McDonald's in the small southern town of Millau. Yet it's also a nation with a prime seat on the global gravy train. Neither Forrester nor Bove seems to grasp that, which leaves a hole the size of the Etoile in their arguments.
Even as cultural icons malign the free market, French companies are making their way in it as never before. Most of the top corporations are now as lean and aggressive as their best rivals across the Atlantic and the English Channel. Renault, once a state-owned dinosaur, is trying to save Japan's Nissan Motor. Carrefour, the world's No. 2 retailer after Wal-Mart Stores Inc., announced on Feb. 28 that it is teaming up with Oracle Corp. and Sears, Roebuck & Co. to mount a global Internet supply exchange. A day later, software giant CAP Gemini announced a $10.7 billion takeover of Ernst & Young's consulting business.
France's economic vigor is hardly lost on outsiders. Among the blue chips that make up the CAC 40 index, on average, over 40% of traded capital is owned by foreign investors. In some cases, non-French hold a majority of stock. Yes, this means strategic decisions are approved by fund managers in California or Scotland, as Forrester likes to point out. But that's partly because France's equity culture remains weak, and private pension funds, an essential feature in the New Economy, are not permitted.
In effect, France is divided against itself as much as against anyone else. Its own success in the global economy seems to revive an old antipathy toward Americans. "French attitudes are completely schizophrenic, viewing the U.S. as both hero and villain," says Parisian political scientist Dominique Moisi. True enough. While many French youths now aspire to start their own companies, others recoil into the past. "We are seeing a return of a popular anti-Americanism that had more or less disappeared in the mid-1970s," says Moisi.
Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin could drown out hostile rhetoric by consolidating France's recent economic gains. But that would require even more reforms--in pension management, for instance, and in labor regulation--which are unlikely in the near term. With Presidential elections set for 2002, Chirac and Jospin, the two likely candidates, are already playing to the galleries. And from Lyons to Lille, nothing plays as well as sticking it to les Anglo-Saxons. That's a shame. As long as the French remain mired in yesterday's mentality, they're sticking it to themselves.By John Rossant; Paris-Based Rossant Is European Regional Editor.