Is France Being Americanized?

EVERYONE remembers the Great Anti-Coke War, desperately fought in French cafés a few years ago. Like most crusades, its purest motive—the defense of French wine, apéritifs, and Eau de Vichy—was mixed with more dubious interests, and was used as a trump card by unscrupulous neutralists. Thus a most noble fight ended in confusion. Without becoming a national drink, Coca-Cola was tolerated as a so-called beverage, especially on hot days. The great cause of the French way of life suffered a blow whose results, according to the pessimists—the core of the nation—ought to prove far-reaching.

Yet the future did not turn to the worst. Chewing gum and bubble gum, introduced by the American Army, were doubtless a social nuisance for a couple of years: they stuck to armchairs, shoes, professors' pants, and conversations. Children, and half-baked adults, were in danger of becoming ruminants. Their rhythm of thought had slowed down, and to keep up with the pace of time, they attended in increasing numbers American motion pictures, preferably those full of blood, car races, and revolver shots. "What will happen?" moaned the pessimists. Nothing; juvenile delinquency did not climb the statistical scale, though blue jeans, at first sold in stores dealing in American surplus and later manufactured in France, are now on sale in every open-air market.

We were entering the second part of the century: high time to become philosophical, as centuries in their fifties start to be. Vastly prejudiced essayists—they are the best in any case—began to analyze the concept of "Americanization." It turned out to be a very unpleasant monster, hardly recognizable for anyone who had lived a normal and decent life in the U.S.A. Americanization, like a creeping disease, would endanger the deepest roots of the Western soul; within a couple of decades, without noticing the imperceptible process, the French would become neo-Americans. For the sake of our national pride, we accepted a minor reservation: Americanization, though inescapable, would proceed more slowly in France than in Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, England, and generally all Western European countries. Yet the prospect was ghastly enough, for what is an American? A human robot; a worshiper of machines, brainwashed by the movies, advertising, and television, devoid of tradition, of family life, of self-intimacy; a money-maker for whom the dollar is the only universal value; a super-hygienic food washer who cleans vegetables with chlorine, totally depersonalized, conditioned to live in a spiritual vacuum: in short, a science fiction nightmare and a bore.

Where did that mythical caricature come from, and why did we call it American? France has not yet fully recovered from the aftermath of war; we in France have not yet consented to re-evaluate our position in the world today, and we suffer both from a wounded pride and a lack of confidence in ourselves. We had been "la grande nation," and we used to think of France as the universal teacher of spiritual values. Our defeat tore us apart in a world of conflicting ideologies, none of which was a product of our national spirit. Besides, the world was changing too fast for us; we felt that we had been left behind, twenty years behind the times, and did not want to admit it. We looked for a scapegoat on which to vent our anxiety and our resentment. We resented America as the real victor in the war, in our part of the world at least; as the land of technical success whose example was contagious for our neighbors in Europe, big and small. America was loudly advertising its way of life; at the same time, it was critically sensitive to its spiritual lacks; thus it gave us the scapegoat we needed, and material for prosecuting that scapegoat. We had but to emphasize, by isolating them from their natural environment, the very defects which the Americans themselves were more and more aware of, and were openly discussing.

THE French are the most conservative people on earth. The last war relatively spared their land and did not force them to start from nothing, as it did Germany. Our national economy a few years after the war was pretty much the same as it was in 1939. The more we delayed its adaptation to the times, the more upsetting for our fixed habits such a change was bound to be. Those habits are deeply grounded, and some of them correspond to much-treasured values. The French believe, rightly enough, that they have reached a level of civilization, an intellectual refinement, whose influence has pervaded even their daily lives; to lose it would be like losing one's identity. They feel also—though refusing to confess it—that they must change or perish. The survival of France is conditioned by external forces, especially in the economic field, but pride and prejudice make it hard for us to adopt a way of life foreign to our traditional tempo. We are, if I may say so, the Southerners of the West. For complex reasons, some good, some bad, we have tried until recently to resist the full process of mechanization. It does not mean that we do not change: our achievements in many fields deserve attention, but we are the last to value them seriously, and we do not derive from them the self-confidence we should. We lack unity of purpose, for we hesitate to sacrifice anything of the past; we have not yet decided what is essential in it and therefore must be preserved. Nonetheless, we are driven away from it, and pushed forward in spite of ourselves without enjoying our motion as we would if it came from our own free will.

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