Monday, September 17, 2012

Why do Americans struggle to appreciate the French?

Writing the last post on Julia Child made me think of this question.

Why is it that Americans sneer at the French so much. And if your answer constitutes more sneering at the French, it's not a good answer.

And if you can't plumb the depths of the destructive project of French-hatred, perhaps you could help me with a more constructive project: what are more examples of as-American-as-apple-pie types that were enthusiastic francophiles?

Three immediately come to mind for me. Julia Child, obviously. The other two are Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

I'm not thinking of people that the average American would consider aloof. Clearly there are a lot of people out there who like the French. But who is considered a paragon of being down to earth and American-as-apple-pie that was also unashamedly enthusiastic about the French?

I never studied French in school (I had four years of German instead), and only managed to mumble a couple things to them when I was in Paris. My family doesn't speak French nor are they world travelers that have instilled an appreciation in me. And I have an atrocious lack of world travel experience (it's so bad I'm not even going to share the short list). So it's not like I'm being aloof or an unusual case when I say this - I've just always thought France and French culture were wonderful and never quite understood why so many Americans are so down on it.


  1. As a francophile who has lived in France and had to "explain Americans" to inquisitive French people, I've wondered a lot about this. My sense is that there are two things going on with the American dislike of the French: 1) populist dismissal of high culture, which results from France's traditional status as an exporter of luxury goods, trend-setter in fashion, and center of higher learning, all of which strike some as pompous and elitist; 2) offense over a perceived lack of gratitude for American involvement in World Wars I and II.

    The first has always been around (Mark Twain comes to mind). The second, I think, actually results from an older tradition of francophilia in 18th and 19th century America. France was enormously popular for its intervention in the American revolution (and presumably for its contributions to enlightenment thought). Lafayette was regarded as the country's second national hero, after Washington (the "no foreigners can be president" clause of the constitution happened because it was thought that the Marquis would easily win election if he ran). After the French revolution, this tradition portrayed the countries as sister republics with bound destinies. Obviously the violent controversy over American diplomatic policy in the 1790s illustrates this. So the fact that France embraced "anti-American" rhetoric after 1945 stung.

  2. To be more precise - backwards-harkening, mainly rural-dwelling conservative Americans frequently sneer at the French - the rest do so (if at all) less sincerely, believing that it's something good Americans are supposed to do.

    My guess is that it's related to hatred of "elitism". France is the de facto proxy for an exotic, scary place called "Europe", which stands for progressivism, cultural freedom and experimentation and generous social welfare in the minds of Americans. (Interestingly, these connotations seem to be the same for both liberals and conservatives - the values assigned to them aren't) The stereotypical Frenchman/-woman drinks elitist wine instead of folksy beer, is as promiscuous as a hippie, speaks exotic languages like an Ivy League socialist intellectual, is lousy at war and is a secularist to boot. If you're a conservative and you take these mental connotations at face value, what's not to hate?

    This is all shooting from the hip, of course. I have no real data on who believes what and why - I just like making credible-sounding stuff up.

    The answer to your question? Funnily enough Mitt Romney is the only person on top of my mind, although I'm not so sure he's too eager to be frank about his French experiences considering how it helped John Kerry :D

  3. Other enthusiastic francophiles:

    Jackie Kennedy (American-as-apple-pie by virtue of being first lady)

    James Monroe committed treason in service to France while he was ambassador there; I think that should count

    I'm having a hard time thinking of others -- not sure if people like Hemingway who chose to reside in Paris should be included.

    1. Ya I wasn't sure about Hemingway myself for the same reason.

      The answers here, I think, are right.

      I'm not sure what I was hoping for when framing it as a question. These all seem right but I'm still left asking "but WHY?". Just that sort of thing I guess.

      I was more interested in what ideas you'd have for other true blue francophiles.

  4. We are a nation founded by the British. Of course we don't like the French.

  5. A follow-up. When I was in Poland, I noticed that the Poles tended to be pro-American, anti-Russian, anti-German, and anti-French. You only need to know a little history to understand the first three, but I found the anti-French attitudes puzzling (after all, France has historically been a major supporter of Poland). When I asked a Polish friend about this, he said that it was French haughtiness that turned people off (as he put it, the average Frenchman talks as if he thought Napoleon were still alive).

    So there's really nothing unusual about Americans not liking the French. Lots of people don't like them.

  6. The most perceptive view on this is that it is the similarity in aspirations and values that results in cognitive dissonance.

  7. I (not being American, though) believe that people do not appreciate pretty much all other nations different from their own (and sometimes even their own too). It's just how we are wired. An alien is a threat and a target for hate/violence. So, one could always find something derogatory to say about foreigners, some just do not choose to. I believe that works like this: if you are a part of a nation, then you exist in a shared field of beliefs, customs and prejudices (a-la Gellner 1983), and if you are a crazy right-winger (Altemeyer 2006) you are always aggressive and ready to employ the vilest concepts you know towards the foreigners.
    Sorry if the picture I paint is too bleak.

  8. "Why is it that Americans sneer at the French so much?"

    One reason, perhaps, is Charles De Gaulle. The U. S. and Brits liberated France from Nazi occupation, and De Gaulle never forgave us. He tried to make France a superpower in competition with the U. S., at the same time as it was losing its colonies. One reason that Nixon, on the advice of Milton Friedman, took the U. S. completely off the gold standard was the De Gaulle was purposefully depleting U. S. gold reserves during the Viet Nam War.

    Another reason, perhaps, is that France is an intellectual culture, while the U. S. is anti-intellectual. They sneered at us first. ;)

  9. Kannst du noch Deutsch sprechen oder schreiben, Daniel? Und hast du vielleicht deutsche Ahnen? Dein Nachname klingt, als hätte er ursprünglich "Kühn" heißen können.

  10. Min's got it pegged, I think. Looking back, I seen to recall that France was generally well regarded in the 1950's and early 1960's. In the mio to late 1960's, we began viewing the French as anti-American, partially because of French objections to the VietNam war and other aspects of US foreign policy, partially because French intellectuals found much to object to in American society.

  11. After studying in Europe for a summer, I realized we weren't the only ones that disliked the french. for example, many Italians think of french as stuck up and they make constant comments on how much the french soccer team cheats... Though they did tell me that the 'cool' french were the ones from the south, they seemed more laid back, or so I have been told.

  12. May be Guilt? The French made American Independence possible and their American allies agreed a unilateral peace treaty with Britain in breach of their promise. So hating the French is projection to avoid having to show contrition.


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