Commentary: The Real War Is France vs. France

Resentment of the U.S. is being challenged by a growing cadre of French thinkers

"Our war with france." That was how The New York Times titled a Sept. 18 column by Thomas L. Friedman criticizing the French government's stance on Iraq. "France is not just our annoying ally," writes Friedman, one of the newspaper's leading voices on foreign affairs. "It is not just our jealous rival. France is becoming our enemy." Friedman's views, reprinted word for word in Paris daily Le Monde, seemed to confirm the view of many French: The U.S. has become a warmonger, intent on crushing France for daring to be independent.

Plenty of French resent America these days. But if you think French public opinion is monolithically anti-American, spend some time exploring French media and you'll quickly discover that the French are much more divided about les Américains than les Américains think they are. The real war is France vs. France, even though the issue is American power -- whether France should oppose it, support it, or somehow accommodate it. As Paris and Washington find themselves with diplomatic daggers drawn once again -- this time on the issue of the U.N.'s role in postwar Iraq -- French opinion back home is more sharply divided than it has ever been. That division says far more about the crisis in France's identity than the faults of the U.S.

Take a look at the nonfiction best-sellers on display at the giant Fnac Champs-Elysées store. On one side, violent attacks on America, either because it's an overbearing colossus -- as political scientist Pascal Boniface argues in his La France contre L'Empire (France against the Empire -- guess which one) -- or because it's a decadent, collapsing giant, as in Emmanuel Todd's Après l'Empire (After the Empire).

But you'll find that the anti-anti-Americans are out in force, too. Bernard-Henry Lévy, André Glucksmann, and Jean-François Revel, among others, see anti-Americanism as the default mode among French intellectuals, one that can often slide seamlessly into anti-capitalism and anti-Semitism. These critics may not be fans of every U.S. policy, but they reserve their most withering judgments for posturing French public figures, such as Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. September 11, for Glucksmann, was nothing less than a declaration of war against democracy: "The question of questions is not multilateralism or unilateralism but nihilism or civilization." Just the kind of strong words the French love, which is why these tomes are flying off the shelves. "The only really popular theme is America," says a Fnac saleswoman. "That and whether France is declining."

In a way, it's the same theme: power and the lack of it. American diplomatic and military stridency underscores the relative powerlessness of France. Thus the French pine for the days when Charles de Gaulle could flamboyantly pull France and its nuclear-tipped missiles out of NATO, while at the same time, according to recent polls, some 72% see their nation in decline. "For the first time in the history of our country, people are wondering whether we are still capable of great things," says Michel Crepu, head of the monthly Revue des Deux Mondes. That helps explain why the book with the most buzz is La France qui Tombe (Falling France), by historian Nicolas Baverez. It's a merciless account of how shabby the French model has become: economic growth at zero, unemployment running near 10%, and public debt approaching $1.14 trillion, all stemming from a persistent inability to modernize. And as neither the center-right nor the center-left is willing to try real reforms, "it is the extremists who benefit," argues Baverez. Hard-hitting criticism -- and as biting as anything directed against the U.S. Our "war" with France may be important, but it's the outcome of France vs. France that could determine this proud nation's course.

By John Rossant

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