Every year we host hundreds of visitors in France who come from the United States, and a large number of them are surprised and relieved that they do not encounter any of the anti-Americanism for which France is notorious in the USA. Many ask us what has happened to it? Is it gone for good, or just hibernating? Did it ever exist, at all?
The truth is often elusive; and, in this case, it also requires a bit of perspective. Franco-American relations began with the French funding of the American War of Independence and supplying troops, ships and cannon which defeated the British at Yorktown. The payback was the French Revolution which resulted in the French monarchy and much of its aristocracy paying for that support with their heads. Had the funds lent to and spent on the colonies been available to buy bread, starvation might not have become one of the catalysts that kicked off the French Revolution. A Frenchman’s regard for the Americans would have been flavored by where they stood in the aftermath of the cataclysm. We know how de Tocqueville and Lafayette felt about it, but families that lost members to the guillotine surely felt differently.
Fast forward to the end of the First World War: France, already brutalized by the Franco Prussian War of 1870-1, faced several unpleasant truths: 1) it was indebted to the US for the successful conclusion of WWI, and 2) in the worlds of business and military might France was in decline while the US was rising. Did the elites of France resent it? You bet they did. Did the average French man care? Probably not. Many even chose to emigrate to the US.
The conclusion of WWII saw the same result, compounded with the humiliating memories of the French capitulation to Hitler, the German occupation, collaboration with the enemy, and delivery by the Anglo-Saxons. Was there gratitude? Surely. Ordinary French men and women often accost our American clients when we visit the American D Day sites in Normandy to whom they spontaneously express their gratitude, tears in their eyes, 66 years after the fact.
Was there also resentment? Of course: it is not easy to rise from prostration while keeping your dignity intact. Add in the psychological dilemma of having to deal with visitors who spoke a language you did not know, who had money to burn, while you were still counting your losses, not only in cash. Turning on them with a curt admonishment to speak French in France was a temptation to which many yielded. Finding your world turned on its head and your place in the sun usurped by what were perceived to be the uncultivated nouveau riche Americans was frustrating and galling to many, especially to those who did not speak English.
Is that the way most French regard Americans today? Hardly: most French have learned English in school, where it has been routinely taught for decades, and they are proud to show what they know. When they see someone with an American accent struggling with French, they often leap into English, to be of help. My own French is encumbered with an American accent, and I often have a hard time keeping conversations in French with people providing me services in France. Everyone tries to make it easier for me by switching to English, which, of course, also allows them to strut their stuff.
People also adapt, and times change. Very few remember the era of French dominance in world affairs, and they are resigned to a globalized world in which English dominates. Most French harbor a genuine affection for the US and its unique culture. Many choose the US for holiday destinations, hum the latest songs from the American hit parade, and dine at American-style eateries before going to see American films, shown in the original language, no less.
In the 30 years I have lived in France I have witnessed a sea change in French attitudes on a wide range of issues; and there is no time I can recall when Americans are as welcome as they are today. That is not to be confused with the French perception of the role of the US government in the world, which gets the same withering treatment that they reserve for all governments, including their own.