[VIEWPOINT]The odd couple: squabbling palsThe attitude now prevailing in Washington seems to be to renew the friendship between the United States and Germany but to try to punish France, although both opposed the war in Iraq. Among the French, antipathy for the war is also overshadowed by French objections to the current neoconservative-driven American foreign policy at almost all levels.
The current tensions are nothing new. This ambivalence dates to the American Revolution; without French assistance, the American colonists unlikely would have ever won independence from their British colonial masters. But the importance of the French role in the American Revolution tends to be downplayed in contemporary American school textbooks. In more recent times, the occupation of France by Germany during World War II was ended largely because of the intervention of American and British soldiers in 1944-45. A generation earlier, the stalemate between France and Germany in World War I was ended in 1917-18 largely because American soldiers came to fight on the side of France. France acknowledges all of this, but only grudgingly.
Although the details are clouded in secrecy, it is widely rumored that France’s military intelligence agencies quietly provided their U.S. counterparts with valuable information during the invasion of Iraq this year, and this happened even while France was publicly criticizing this invasion. Moreover, within France, there were many people who were sympathetic to U.S. goals in Iraq. But, as always, this sympathy was marked by ambivalence. I was repeatedly asked, for example, why the United States was prepared to attack Iraq when, in the French view, the nation posing the biggest threat with respect to weapons of mass destruction was not Iraq but North Korea.
Even those who sympathized with the war aims loathed President George W. Bush. One main reason lies in French conceptions of democracy. In the French view, leadership positions should be held by a “republican elite,” educated in the best schools and groomed for leadership. Most high-level French politicians, civil servants and business executives are from that class. Thus, while democracy in France does mean that the French people get to elect who leads them, the candidates have largely been limited to members of an elite class.
These prestigious schools in France could be in some ways likened to the most prestigious U.S. universities from which many top U.S. leaders, including George W. Bush, have graduated. But there is one difference: most French “grandes ecoles” are state schools where entry is by merit and education is essentially free. The idea is that no one is admitted on the basis of who his or her parents or grandparents might have been. By contrast, in the French view, the prestigious U.S. universities are tainted. The French see Mr. Bush as a mediocre student who was nonetheless admitted to Andover, Yale, and Harvard Business School on the basis of family connections.
Another source of French-American tension is that Americans fail to understand the French view of Mr. Bush. Many Americans believe, rather, that the French are effete snobs who fail to appreciate him because he is a Texan. But this is wrong; the French have a fascination with the American West.
Moreover, Bill Clinton, who to the French is an authentic American from west of the Mississippi River who did rise on the basis of merit, is widely admired. And finally, because of French leadership aspirations in Europe, we cannot automatically expect things to improve when Mr. Bush leaves office.
But relations between France and the United States have long been ambivalent but never truly antagonistic. In moments of true crisis, the two have come together, and they never have been enemies. When the chips are down, friendship will prevail.
* The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics in Washington.
by Edward M. Graham