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The Atlantic Monthly | June 1958
VERYONE 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.
Is France Being Americanized?
by Pierre Emmanuel
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.
HE 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.
Yet we cannot resist the forces at work in the world and in ourselves. Our virtue—and our vice—is to speculate about the state of the universe. We try to understand the way it is going, but in order to understand it better, we would like to stop its process. We find it extremely difficult to think and move at the same time, which explains our present historical neurosis: we are not able to control our own change, and we suffer intensely from it.
In recent years we have been entering a new phase, without being aware of it. Details in our daily lives have been modified, and new habits are imperceptibly shaping themselves in the man in the street. Our mental resistance to a world whose idea we cannot grasp beforehand may yield by degrees to practical modifications in our familiar gestures and our close environment. We have adopted some of the American ways of life, without saying too loudly that we are imitating the Americans. Partly for that reason, the resentment against America has diminished and expresses itself, for the time being, through more or less stale jokes rather than in bitterness. We have thus opened the first breach in our standoffishness. And what a breach! We have desecrated food.
Returning travelers used to say ironically, five or six years ago: "Zurich is quite Americanized" or "Essen is a Middle-Western city." But, thank God, there were no snack bars in France, for "snacks would be the beginning of the end." Now there are snacks everywhere, and self-service too. In Lyon, the capital of French gastronomy, the famous Buffet de la Gare has been turned into a self-service establishment; it looks exactly like any Horn and Hardart branch (unpaid advertisement). The sacred French two-hour break for lunch will soon be but a nostalgic memory; for where in France if not in Lyon was the respect for food more of a religious and family cult? Foreigners complain that one does not eat so well in France as one used to. True: but the cooking and enjoyment of good food takes time, which very few people can still afford; it also takes fresh vegetables, herbs, and meats, which deep freezes superbly ignore. Ten years from now, we shall eat sandwiches at twelve, leave our offices at five, rush for a train or to a parking lot, and travel forty miles to return home to a cold supper and television.
The paradox in France is that we are both slow to move and rapidly moving. We have the fastest trains in the world, the best international railway and plane connections, one of the highest percentages of cars, a remarkable birth rate, a surprisingly promising economy; but these new energies have come after half a century of relative standstill, if we compare our own development with England's or Germany's. We are now compelled to adjust ourselves, as quickly as possible, to new forces and an expanding nation.
The same paradox is illustrated demographically: France is a very old and very young nation. Most of our political leaders have been reared in a nineteenth-century tradition, and the gap between them and our industrial leaders—between politics and economy—is becoming a deep chasm. A young generation is ready to take over everywhere, and the young bosses have their counterparts on the intermediary rungs of our civil service. But though they are most competent and full of initiative in their field, they do not control the whole; they have not succeeded in changing the obsolete part of the existing French structures.
The word "technocrats" has been applied to them in a disparaging way. The mistrust of technicians and specialists is part of our national prejudice; whenever political matters are involved, technicians have to take a back seat. They resent it more and more, for they feel that they are, at least for the time being, the true makers of the nation. But they tend to value their action in economic terms only, so that French life goes on along two separate lines, in spite of the efforts of men like Mendès-France who are trying to make the economy the axis of politics.
For such people, to whom American methods are well known and who admire the way American specialists are integrated into political life, Americanization means first of all simplification. Young technicians—future engineers or civil servants—travel a good deal nowadays. For the last ten years, a number of them have stayed in the United States long enough to study the techniques of modern efficiency, which they want to bring back home. I personally know a few of them who were given scholarships or went to the United States without definite purpose, through organizations like the Harvard International Seminar. They left France with the customary false notions about America, and after a few weeks in the United States they made some discoveries: first, naïve as it may seem, they found that life was quite human in the U.S.A. and far more diversified than a stereotyped image had led them to expect.
Second, American life had a charm for enterprising young people whose initiative had been stymied at home and who wanted to escape sterile discussions and to get a broader view of real problems. That they should be impressed on the scientific and technical level was natural, but they were struck also with the quality of thought among the American intellectuals and scholars. They realized that America had become a field of universal culture. A thirty-five-year-old philosopher told me, after a three-month stay in the United States: "To make life simpler in an increasingly complicated world is an American art, from which we may start to make life deeper and more significant."
HE battlefield of modernization is found primarily in French education, the structure of which is obsolete. The American system has influenced our reformers, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Without saying it openly, we are trying to reorganize French universities upon the American pattern. More and more, on the graduate or specialized levels, they will become groups of institutes. Teamwork in research is also steadily growing. The National Center of Scientific Research is the promoter of that reform, which breaks with our individualistic approach to learning. Our competitive system that has built up a society of mandarins (a caste whose privileges are traditional in the nation) resists a change which would endanger its taboos of selection.
On the other hand, the reformers are inclined to go too fast, especially in the changes they want to introduce into secondary education. While the best minds in the United States are underlining the defects of the American secondary schools, there is a tendency in France to adopt the equalitarian ideas which have weakened American high school education. The whole question turns on the necessity to build up, as quickly as possible, an intermediate class of technicians with practical qualifications; classical studies tend to be overlooked for the sake of basic scientific requirements. Genuine admiration for American achievements on a higher level led the French to accept uncritically a deterioration of culture during the formative years—a contradiction which we would have escaped if we had paid more attention to the educational systems in countries other than America.
Yet there is a logic in American influence: whether we like it or not, we are part of an Atlantic world where the American economy is predominant. America's help is not accepted without protest and more or less boastful attempts are made to reject it, but United States economic supremacy is a fact that we may have to live with for a long time. Western Europe does not yet exist as a world force. Until its time comes—if it ever does—to play an influential part in international affairs, France's fate and America's are linked together, as long as we resist Communism.
During the dark days of Budapest, the bulk of French public opinion woke up to that unity of purpose. Since then, anti-Americanism has quieted down, though it still exists potentially—as a symbol of ultranationalism. Whether the last American loan had political implications, we cannot say, but most people cannot dismiss the feeling that it comes with strings attached, and they resent what they consider a sort of control, though it may be unavoidable.
Another example of French ambiguous reaction toward America can be found in our attitude toward Robert Murphy's "good offices" mission and toward his very person, symbolic as they are of certain methods which in the past were considered intrusive. In spite of Mr. Murphy's diplomatic discretion, the French remain vigilant. Thus American influence, though increasing in our daily life and helping us to modify many of our ways of thought and techniques, is counteracted by a feeling of dependence which rankles in most Western European countries but nowhere more virulently than here.
Is such a feeling totally unhealthy? I think not. Were it limited to narrow resentment and a blind refusal to partake of common responsibilities and interests, it would lead to a major crisis in France and perhaps to a disruption of the whole Western world. But if it represents a state of transition, expressing the need for a new balance of power between free nations cherishing the same values, it may bring about a greater sense of autonomy within a wider system of interdependence. We do not mind motels springing up along the French highways; we are not averse to French hot dogs, though they taste better in the United States. But we would mind American supremacy.
America is the first to know it, and its policy takes our reactions into account—at least we hope so. In spite of temporary drawbacks, a common psychology is progressively shaping the Western mind: Europe has imported American pragmatism, while America, especially for the last ten years, has undergone a spiritual change which makes it sensitive to patterns of thought and philosophies foreign to its pre-war traditions. During my last visits in the United States, I was struck by the growing number of inexpensive paperback collections that bring to the public the last two centuries of European culture from Hegel and Kierkegaard to Existentialist philosophy.
Thus the process of identification works both ways. The typical French reaction against the dangers of a mechanical age would easily find an echo even in the minds of American scientists. But it would be futile simply to go on denouncing a world whose motion we cannot stop. We have to work out together a practical and spiritual problem: How can our age of machines become truly human? From what I know of the United States today, it is no great prophecy to expect that American experience will be essential to our modern re-evaluation of man.
We may regret that French papers have been invaded by Opera Mundi comics—which lose most of their flavor, by the way, when dubbed in French; yet such facts are but symptoms of American prestige, and they are absorbed without being adapted; they remain exotic and are liked as such. The James Dean craze that swept so many European countries did not make French youth hysterical. Young people were interested because it made them think: they found in Dean's pictures a spirit of rebellion which they do not ignore but which they are stable enough to keep in check. Excessive romanticism does not appeal to them. By contrast, it is significant that for the Polish or Hungarian youth James Dean has become a mythical figure of the times. (A Yugoslav writer told me that Russian film critics had made the trip to Belgrade especially to see one of Dean's pictures.)
In France, at least for the time being, no such big emotional wave is to be feared. The French owe their stability to various factors: first, to a long tradition of cosmopolitan culture; second, to the capricious tyranny of fashion, which though it seems to take no interest in fundamental values, does in fact preserve them. A third reason is French provincialism: Paris and Mantes (thirty miles away) are farther apart than New York and San Francisco. These three reasons are not contradictory; they are deeply interwoven. Their common result is the power of slow but serious assimilation which adds to our cultural treasure without upsetting it. Even the pains of assimilation—those we suffer now, for instance—increase our spiritual activity.
The French may not be the present makers of the world, but we are among those who will give it a human shape, for no matter how uncertain and foolish we may sometimes seem to other nations, we will not take that world for granted until it fulfills some universal and basic human demands. We still live by a great attribute of man, which has become one of our sacred words: la raison. It may prevent us from falling into the various heresies of progress, and make progress itself a firm ground for further human achievements of a more spiritual nature.
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Author of numerous volumes of prose and verse, Pierre Emmanuel is in charge of the English language broadcasts of the French government radio station, Radio-Diffusion Française. Before the war he taught at a French lycée and in 1948 he lectured in universities and colleges in the United States. For several years he has taught at Harvard University's Summer School.
Copyright © 1958 by Pierre Emmanuel. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1958; Is France Being Americanized?; Volume 201, No. 6; page 35.