Beyond Freedom Fries: The Roots of American Francophobia

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How did the country that gave us the Statue of Liberty become "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" and an unacceptable vacation destination for a presidential candidate?

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French President Jacques Chirac meets with George W. Bush at the White House in 2006. Reuters

About a hundred years after the Marquis de Lafayette and other French nobles volunteered as officers in the American Revolutionary War, which the French government also helped fund, about 200,000 people lined the docks at New York to welcome a ship named Isère, which carried in 214 wooden crates the copper pieces of the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France and a bond of two of the world's oldest and surest democracies. About a hundred years after that, the U.S. Congress ordered its cafeteria to relabel French fries as "freedom fries." Soon after, French's Mustard put out a press release assuring consumers, "The only thing French about French's Mustard is the name."

It was a sad, but sadly not isolated, moment of U.S. hostility toward France. Today, when Mitt Romney dared to reference his family's vacations to France -- "I have a lot of memories of France," he said, "and I look forward to occasional vacations again in such a beautiful place" -- political reporters immediately declared it a terrible misstep. "Note to politicians: Don't talk about France. Ever. Unless you are condemning it somehow," tweeted the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza. The "entire" Politico newsroom apparently "erupted" with cries of "oh no" at his comments.

"Note to politicians: Don't talk about France. Ever. Unless you are condemning it somehow."

Sadly, they are probably right. In 2003, Americans' popular attitudes toward France were worse than toward any other European country, including Russia: 60 percent unfavorable and 29 percent favorable. Those numbers were about on par with U.S. attitudes toward Saudi Arabia, which many Americans still believe was responsible for September 11 (there is little to no evidence for this). France's numbers have improved since then -- 63 percent favorable and 31 percent unfavorable as of 2010 -- but American unfavorability toward France still scored higher than toward, for example, Egypt. This is remarkable for a country that shares our revolutionary democratic history and has fought alongside the U.S. in nearly every American war since independence. Of course, French anti-Americanism has its own long history.

The recent low point in U.S.-French relations was in 2003, when the French government opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But so had Germany, and no one tried to rename sauerkraut. There was something about France, and it didn't begin during the Bush administration. In 1945, when American soldiers flooded liberated France, the U.S. Army was so worried about the troops' Francophobia that it issued them a pamphlet encouraging cultural understanding. 112 Gripes About the French listed, and then retorted, the most common American negative stereotypes about France. Yes, there were 112 of them.

The Simpsons crystallized American Francophobia a decade before the Iraq War with a 1995 show calling the French "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," a reference to their purportedly snobby tastes and weak military. In fact, per capita cheese consumption is almost exactly the same in France as it is in the U.S., and the French military managed to conquer most of Europe, as well as northern and western Africa. (Americans needed British, Russian, and yes French help to take the same lands that Napoleon Bonaparte had seized with no major ally.) But the phrase stuck -- how many other one-off Simpsons jokes made it into the Oxford quotation dictionary twice? -- not because it was factually true but because it perfectly encapsulated the American perception.

American Francophobia is so puzzling, so utterly at odds with the historical and cultural forces that should bring the U.S. and France together, that there is actually a body of competitive academic literature attempting to explain it. Some say that Americans more strongly identify with the UK and Germany -- many more Americans are of British or German heritage than French -- and thus have subconsciously adopted long-standing British and German anxieties toward France.

Historian Justin Vaïsse thinks that the absence of a strong, unified French-American community means that there is little stigma against expressing Francophobia -- compared to anti-Japanese or anti-German attitudes, for example -- which over time has allowed Francophobia to flourish more freely than have other anti-national attitudes. This is why, if you walk around your office calling Indian or Bolivian or Polish people smelly and dirty, you'll get fired; if you say the same about the French, you'll probably get a few laughs.

French academics Pierre Bourdieu and Stanley Hoffmann argue that both the American and French systems are "universalist" -- both countries view their own social-political models as the ultimate end of political development, the absolute ideal -- and thus see the other as contradictory and innately offensive.

I also learned, when I asked about this phenomenon on Twitter, that everyone -- everyone -- has a theory. The armchair theories tend to fall into two categories: the "thankless French" argument that Americans resent France for being insufficiently deferential or grateful for U.S. assistance in Vietnam and both world wars, and the "American inferiority" theory that we are intimidated by France's superior politics, culture, and health care.

Both of those popular answers are really about how Americans views themselves; the former says we are better than the world gives us credit for, the latter says we're not as great as we think. Either theory could be applied to American attitudes toward any wealthy country -- it doesn't even have to be European. But neither really tells us about the particular U.S. attitudes toward France. Maybe that's the most revealing thing. France and America are possibly the only two countries in the world that truly believe it's all about us, that assume our own greatness, either as something to be respected or perfected. That kind of attitude doesn't really accept peers; there can't be two pinnacles of Western social development. It's one of the many traits we share and one of the many things keeping us apart.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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