December 07, 2004

They’ll Never Have Paris

I don't usually link to reviews of books I haven't read. And I've never linked to a rebuttal to a review of a book I haven't read. But sometimes these things are entertaining all by themeselves.

Like now, for instance.

John J. Miller and Mark Molesky wrote a book called Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France.

Is the book good? I dunno. Maybe. Our relationship with France isn’t all that hot at the moment, so it could be interesting and informative. On the other hand, with an overwrought title like that it’s not hard to imagine a wee bit of hyperventilating.

I was in France last weekend after my grand tour of Libya. I was well aware of the strained relationship between our two countries while I was there. But the French even in Paris were absolute sweethearts to me. (Where they get the reputation for being rude, I have no idea. My experience does not bear it out.) I certainly didn’t feel like I was behind enemy lines. After Libya, I felt like I was home.

Anyway, one of France’s most famous intellectuals, Bernard-Henri Levy, wrote a nasty review for the New York Times. (Try to get over the shock.) Miller and Molesky strike back at NRO. Maybe everyone involved is full of crap. I don’t know, but the fight is fun either way.
In his one-page critique, Levy hurls just about every hysterical epithet he can find in our direction. He accuses us of "racism" and "Francophobia." He calls our book "nauseating," "fantastical," "grotesque," and in competition for the "grand prize in stupidity." He even compares what we've written to "the fascist French literature of the 1930s."

Now that's a curious putdown, comparing us to the French.

The only thing more curious may be the fact that before Levy goes diving off the deep end, he concedes so much of our argument. He readily admits that French anti-Americanism is "lodged in the heart of my country's culture." He even calls our historical account of Franco-American diplomatic relations — which is to say, the vast majority of our book — "a more or less fair re-evaluation."

What really seems to irritate him is that we have the audacity to examine how French anti-Americanism has shaped Franco-American relations throughout history. At its core, our book seeks to overturn the pervasive, deep-seated, and dearly beloved myth that France and the United States are traditional allies whose age-old friendship only hit the rocks when America's yahoo president decided to embark on an imperialist adventure in Iraq.

Levy's central complaint, however, is that we have committed the unforgivable sin of "essentialism" — i.e. that we reduce France and the French to a simplistic, noxious caricature. His evidence that we are dyed-in-the-wool essentialists comes from the second-to-last line of our conclusion, where we offer some parting thoughts on the future of Franco-American relations: "Will the French, in short, continue to be the French?" we ask. For Levy, this mortifying question is hard evidence of "a temptation to which it is surprising to see apparently respectable minds succumb: racism." In other words, we are racists for even wondering it. Yet Levy completely overlooks something that is, ahem, essential to understanding our question, which is that our question is actually an allusion. It harks back to the opening lines of the conclusion, where we quote a prominent American politician who had just been asked whether he considered the French friends or enemies. "The French are the French," he responded. "And I think most people know exactly what I mean."

And who was this politician? Here's a hint: He spoke these words during a Democratic primary debate last year.

Still not sure? Some have said he looks French.

The odds remain slim, however, that the New York Times and Bernard-Henri Levy, now duly alerted, will soon condemn the junior senator from Massachusetts as a thoroughgoing essentialist, not to mention a fascist, a racist, and a Francophobe.
You can read Levy’s review here. And you can buy the book that kicked all this off over here.

I should add, for the benefit of those who don't follow the link, that Levy ends his piece this way:

''Our Oldest Enemy,'' an American version of what I used to call ''French ideology,'' reinforces my conviction that there is one matter of great urgency, and only one: to reunite our broken link and to go beyond the two chauvinisms to resume rational dialogue.
I think that would be nice.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at December 7, 2004 11:07 PM


It would be nice. The question becomes what price are we willing to pay to gain France's favor and what price, if demanded by France for that favor, is too great?

Posted by: spc67 at December 8, 2004 01:23 AM

Sorry, to continue. I'd much rather figure out what it takes to make India, Poland, Brazil and a bunch of other nations think well of us (Germany included) before I worried about the French. They are not our friends and don't wish us well (at least politically) and given their declining population, economic stagnation and military limitations, I don't see much reason to court them. Not ahead of the other nations I mentioned.

Posted by: spc67 at December 8, 2004 01:29 AM

“Sorry, to continue. I'd much rather figure out what it takes to make India, Poland, Brazil and a bunch of other nations think well of us (Germany included) before I worried about the French”

Amen. The hell with the French. They are now of secondary importance on the world stage and have repeatedly betrayed us. Their declining birth rates (just like our own blue staters) virtually guarantee a dismal future. India’s military is far larger and its people far more industrious. Why worry so much about those old, white Europeans? They had ample opportunities---and blew it.

Americans are too easily guilt tripped. We need to realize that rarely are we responsible for the anger directed at us. No, these people are merely jealous and bitter about our well deserved power and accomplishments.

Posted by: David Thomson at December 8, 2004 02:22 AM

I was wondering if there is a campaign in America to send back the Statue of Liberty.

Posted by: Ian at December 8, 2004 03:37 AM

“I was wondering if there is a campaign in America to send back the Statue of Liberty.”

This campaign will have to wait until we bring back to American soil, the bodies of our soldiers who died defending France.

Posted by: David Thomson at December 8, 2004 04:00 AM

Whoever said: "Nations do not have friends, they have interests." had it right.

France does whatever it thinks best for France - as it should. And so should the United States. Then, when faced with a situation where interests are conflicted - such as Iraq - we can agree or refuse to align our interests as we see fit.

This strikes me as a more adult way to proceed than to whine about how our "friends" the French aren't acting very friendly.

Given our shared history and culture (judeo-christian, liberal democratic) I suspect our interests will be aligned much more often than not.

Posted by: too many steves at December 8, 2004 04:31 AM

By the way, according to an profile from a couple of years ago in Vanity Fair, Levy is on the center-right of the political spectrum. I remember in the profile him making the point that he was strongly opposed to the form of "anti-Americanism" that was and remains prevalent in French intellectual circles.

Depending on how things turn out on December 17, I myself may be temporarily joining the France bashers. France appears set on preventing Turkey from entering the EU as a full member. That would be a tragic mistake, and everyone who recognizes the importance of nurturing and furthering the moderate, tolerant, pro-Western tendencies in this large nation that happens to be 99% Muslim ought to agree.

Posted by: Markus Rose at December 8, 2004 06:43 AM

I remember in the profile him making the point that he was strongly opposed to the form of "anti-Americanism" that was and remains prevalent in French intellectual circles.

But when somebody confirms what Levy himself believes then such a person is being a "racist." What a completely useless word. In fact, being called a racist these days is tantamount to being called a prophet.

Posted by: David at December 8, 2004 07:05 AM

I really enjoyed the book at issue here, even if it did make me wince at times. I think Miller and Molesky lay it on a bit thick at times--it's fairly obvious they dislike the French. If I had to boil their argument down to its core, it would be that the story of a historical and strong bond of friendship between France and the United States is a lie that serves, and is perpetuated by, the French. France has always approached the United States with an eye to maximizing its power. Sometimes that has involved being our ally, sometimes that has involved massacring colonists, and at other times that has involved attempting to set up puppet governments on our borders.

Not that any of this makes the French inherently bad people at all, of course. But, given the very rocky history we've had with their many governments over the years, it does us no great service to ignore this in favor of believing the fairy-tale that we share a bond of eternal brotherhood. Like others have said, our time is better spent making friends with people who have shown us a more consistent record of warmth and friendship. (Incidentally, I can't help but compare those who place restoring warm relations with France and Germany on such a high pedestal with women who stay in abusive relationships because the abuser keeps professing his love for her.)

Posted by: Nathan Hamm at December 8, 2004 07:07 AM

We should not go out of our way to bash the French. On the contrary, we have too much else to do. They simply are not that relevant. We’ve got troubles of our own. Geopolitically, a strong case can be made that Turkey is more important to us. And the people of India definitely are!

The French have ruined their universities. They have become virtual diploma mills. This is why the silliness of Jacques Derrida and Robert Foucault are taken so seriously. But look at India. Wow, the people of this country are rapidly becoming major intellectual butt kickers. So much so, I would not be surprised that by 2050 AD---India is the center of Western Civilization.

Posted by: David Thomson at December 8, 2004 07:13 AM


may I modestly point out to you that monsieur Foucault's first name (he probably would not have liked the idea of it being called Christian name) is not "Robert", but "Michel".


Posted by: michael at December 8, 2004 07:52 AM

To Michael's point about the French reputation for rudeness, I will concur that I didn't see it in Paris. (Although I was stopped for security checks four times flying out of de Gaulle, and I would feel silly but not out-of-stereoptype wearing leiderhosen. But maybe that was the point.) But the Paris I saw may be as French as Manhattan is American.

Counter example: In-and-around Geneva the francophones were on average absolute horrors. Uncivil and reflexively sleazy. For instance, I have a thing about maps and knowing where I'm at. My company had me booked in the nastiest, cheapest hotel in the area on the French side of the border. I was there for a huge conference of international bankers, so most of the time we were bussed from the hotel to the conference center. But at one point I hired a cab to take me from the city center out to the hotel and the cabbie added about 30 km. to the toll by taking me through the boondocks. Frankly I didn't mind, because I wanted to get out and see the countryside anyway, but that wasn't what I asked for, and we both knew it. In the end his behavior worked for both of us; he thought he was taking the stupid American for a ride, and I got a very nice ride. But the moral of the story is if you travel to the area, watch your back.

Posted by: Mark Poling at December 8, 2004 08:01 AM

India's caste bound elites, and Hinduism instead of Christianity, will be a hindrance. But it has the potential to grow "super fast" (7%/year or more, doubles every 9 years) even longer than China. These two, with Russia, will be knocking on the SuperPower door long before the welfare hungry EU.

France is mostly envious -- the kind of destructive kill-your-neighbor's prize cow kind of envy which causes Marxist revolutions to be as bloody as ... the guillotine crazed French Revolution.

And much Bush-hate, based on anger at tax cuts (for the rich), includes a similar desire for destruction, a desire for the rival to suffer.

But the broken link between France and America is like that between US Dem doves and pro-War Bush supporters.

Are Human Rights from God, or from Government? The EU elites want them from bureaucrats, who can give or take them away, in some local or "Global Test". Bush's America disagrees. Who is right?

No need to round up the usual suspects.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at December 8, 2004 08:12 AM

I'm French. A similar story happened to me on a trip to Boston. I took a cab at the airport. The cab driver pretended to not to understand I was headed to a well-known dowtown hotel and took me on a tour of the suburbs at 11pm at night. We ended up at a run-down motel whose name vaguely resembled the hotel I was actually staying at. Needless to say, I was not pleased. And needless to say as well, I resist making any silly generalizations about Americans based on this experience (No, I'd rather get my canned stereotypes about the morality of Americans from "Jerry Springer"... hey just kidding...)

Posted by: Antoine at December 8, 2004 08:18 AM

“But the broken link between France and America is like that between US Dem doves and pro-War Bush supporters.”

The differing American factions have to live together. France is not indespensible to us. We should leave the door open to the French---but not worry too much about it. It’s up to them. The United States has bigger fish to fry.

Posted by: David Thomson at December 8, 2004 09:33 AM

Antoine, I definitely got the better cab ride. The area around Geneva is beatiful.

That said, the cabbie was a single symptom of a very bad trip. The hotel staff was (as a rule) obnoxious and the locals working the venue were curt and unhelpful. I traveled to a lot of cities in different countries over the past three years, and Geneva is one of the few on my "do not revisit" list. (Paris is not on that list.)

On the other hand, Boston actually is on the list. So I feel sympathy for you, and understand your greater point.

Posted by: Mark Poling at December 8, 2004 09:41 AM

The problem isn't that France acts in its own interests, but that it acts in its own interests and claims moral superiority, and not that they are acting in their own interest. Of course the same could be said of most countries, but France has perfected the art.


Posted by: J1 at December 8, 2004 09:41 AM


Thought that I would do my best to intrude some Al-Guardian style culture into the thread today.
The links below are for two political cartoons published by the voice of liberal British reason.
And they say the left is morally bankrupt.Can't 'they' take a joke ?,14954,1284262,00.html,14955,1284265,00.html

Posted by: dougf at December 8, 2004 09:57 AM

Levy has described himself as "anti-anti-American", and argued that the hatred of America actually masks a deep hatred for modernity and pluralism. He's the author of Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, which is his obsessive tribute to the murdered American journalist, and a earnest search for his killers. (Interestingly enough, in it, he fingered A.Q. Khan as a very dangerous figure long before his WMD network was broken up.) Long before 9/11, he was a passionate advocate for Ahmed Shah Massoud and his lone fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. In his own country, he's one of the few prominent Jewish intellectuals, and he's been a scourge against the rise of anti-Semitismm there in recent years. Before that, during the Cold War, he was scourge on the influence of Communist ideology in France. Despite all that (and partly because of it), he is one of France's most popular figures. This all gives the lie to the idea that French culture is entirely damned, unprincipled, or inherently cowardly, and Levy has far more proven moral authority than these two ideologues have to offer. He's the best they have to offer.

Furthermore, he's married to actress Arielle Dombasle, and she's also the best France has to offer. I'm damn serious, dig:

Posted by: WJA at December 8, 2004 12:52 PM

WJA: He's the best they have to offer.

I haven't read anything of his except this one review, but I might seek out his work.

I like Pascall Bruckner quite a lot. He's brilliant and not at all what most Americans would expect from a French leftist intellectual.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at December 8, 2004 01:21 PM

Another worthwhile French intellectual is Alain Finkielkraut.

Posted by: Antoine at December 8, 2004 01:46 PM

On French rudeness - I suspect that with tourists, it is most often a response to a perceived slight. The classic example (and I have seen this dozens of times) is the tourist in France who accosts a service provider (receptionist, waiter, shop assistant, etc.) in English without the courtesy of first pausing to inquire whether they speak the language and apologizing for their own inability to speak French.

I've been on the other side of that equation - working in a service job in a place that attracted a lot of tourists, and having a French person try to order in French rather than learn the very simple English required. I'm not terribly proud of it, but my instinctive reaction was to feel annoyed and to pretend not to understand.

As always, a little courtesy and effort is generally well rewarded.

On the "debate" that is the subject of the post - I think toomanysteves put it best. It's just such a juvenile debate, and it demeans anyone who gets sucked into analyzing nations in those infantile terms.

Posted by: Mork at December 8, 2004 03:30 PM

French and European-bashing by Americans (mostly from the right) is most often embarrassingly ignorant, as is the mirror American adulation (mostly from the left) of French and European stuff. And the stereotypes one sometimes hears about the French are on a level with Polack jokes.

> declining population

France's population growth rate is 0.42%, one of the highest in Europe. The US rate is 0.92%.

> economic stagnation

France's economic growth rate from 1998 to 2002 was 2.7%, compared to the US's 2.9% (so France grew more per capita, since the US pop. was growing faster). France has the world's 6th biggest economy (in PPP; about 4th biggest in absolute terms).

> military limitations

France has the world's 3d biggest military budget. Outside of Britain, the US has no more powerful or effective military ally (yes, ally). France's military tradition is as impressive as Germany's or Britain's (think François 1er, Louis XIV, Napoleon, WWI).

France remains the key player (with Germany) in the EU, the world's largest economic bloc and a force for democratic, economic, scientific, technical and cultural progress comparable with the US.

Americans often unquestioningly adopt British prejudices against the French, product of a long, mutually beneficial rivalry. France and the US have competing revolutionary universal democratic visions. But the visions have a lot in common.

So being peeved because France, like the US, plays great power games, is lame. Diversity is strength.

Posted by: Kai Carver at December 8, 2004 04:31 PM

Kai Carver: Diversity is strength.

Not when we're actively sabotaging each other, it isn't.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at December 8, 2004 05:27 PM

Its all nonsense of course. The French co-operate fully on the War on Terror, although they had a bit of disagreement with Uncle Sam over Iraq, but any sane person would at least question that operation - the WMD thing was complete garbage.

Anyway, Look at Afghanistan - French fully engaged there.

And the French were important in the capture of Zacharias Moussaoui, whom the Americans hilariously can't convict!

Not only that but the French authorities warned the Americans of Moussaoui and his links to al Qaida and Bin Laden BEFORE 9/11.

Trying to be helpful... But the inept FBI etc still screwed up.

Posted by: Benjamin at December 8, 2004 05:36 PM

Kali Carver,

You've got to do more research before you step in it. A birthrate to hold population constant is 1.2 or so. France's is 1/3 of that. France's economy is currently growing less than 1% per annum whereas the US is growing over 3x that. Nice try cherry picking times. 9/11 happened in the middle of your "analysis," think that might have mattered? As for the third biggest military budget, when they can get their only nuclear carrier out of port for more than 2 weeks at a time, let me know.

As for Europe as a force

forthe world's largest economic bloc and a force for democratic, economic, scientific, technical and cultural progress comparable with the US

Uh, huh. You haven't read the new Constitution have you?

Diversity is strength


Posted by: spc67 at December 8, 2004 05:47 PM

Nice try cherry picking times. 9/11 happened in the middle of your "analysis," think that might have mattered?

The U.S. was already in recession before 9/11. There's very little evidence that the attack affected economic growth anywhere but the NYC area, and even then, not for very long. The hack narratives of both sides (left: Bush's fault, right: 9/11) are equally stupid. It nothing more nor less than a natural progression through the businss cycle, and Western Europe, by the way, went through the very same cycle.

The other point worth making is that although French GDP growth has been less than the U.S., worker productivity has been higher. The reason this doesn't result in higher GDP growth is that, unlike here, where hours worked per capita has been steadily rising for a number of years, French per capita hours have actually dropped. In fact all of the difference in growth rates (and then some) can be explained as a function in the change in hours worked.

Uh, huh. You haven't read the new Constitution have you?

I am sure you haven't either. Nor evidently have you read the press reports that indicate there's not a snowball's chance in hell that it will be approved by voters in its current form.

Posted by: Mork at December 8, 2004 07:12 PM

You've got to do more research before you step in it. A birthrate to hold population constant is 1.2 or so. France's is 1/3 of that.

Hate to tell you this spc67, but you need to pay better attention to what you're reading before you warn someone about stepping in it. Kai was talking about population growth rate; France's is positive, which, by definition means that their population is growing. See, you looked at the numbers that Kai gave (growth ), and somehow thought he was giving fertility rate (births/woman). At least that's the only thing I can figure you're talking about. Even if that is the case, you're wrong about 1.2 being the number required for stability; It's more like 2.1 (I thought that you might have made a typo, and meant 2.1, but you said that 'France's (0.4) is one-third of that' clearly shows that it was not.

Just in case you wated to know, birth rate in France is 12.34/1000, death rate is 9.06/1000, which, along with a net migration rate of 0.66/1000, leads to the population growth rate 0f 0.39% (all numbers from CIA World Factbook). One important note is that the total fertility rate in France is 1.85, so that would lead to a decreasing population in the long term, if not for immigration.

Posted by: Dave Ruddell at December 8, 2004 07:21 PM

I've read the book. I've read the review (in that order). If anything, Levy is being diplomatic. I have no brief for France today, but this book is largely crap. Don't waste your money.

Posted by: Peter T at December 8, 2004 09:23 PM


I was rushed and erred. You are correct, the number is 2.1 births/woman for replacement population. France's in 2001 1.75, a number that foretells the next generation being smaller than the current one.source


Actually I slogged through the entire 272 pages (I think that's how long what I read was). Just horrible. So stuff it.

Posted by: spc67 at December 8, 2004 11:21 PM

re: the EU Constitution

I am sure you haven't either. Nor evidently have you read the press reports that indicate there's not a snowball's chance in hell that it will be approved by voters in its current form.

Hence, the earlier buzz on how EUrocrats were resisting attempts to put the constitution before a vote by the rabble.

Posted by: Bill at December 9, 2004 11:24 AM

My father has been in France twice. The second time he had to pay for it himself instead of glomming a government subsidy. He speaks excellent French (he and my mother used to use La Belle Langue when they wanted to talk over us kids).
The second time he was in Paris, people were rude directly to him and my mother and, not knowing he understood, were constantly saying nasty things about them and Americans in general. Other places in France were far nicer.
One poster referred to nations having interests and presumed it was the duty of their leadership to pursue those interests. That's true, but in the Iraq situation, the millions in bribe money may have had the leadership doing what was in their own interests and not France's.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at December 9, 2004 01:56 PM

Kai Carver: Diversity is strength.

Michael: Not when we're actively sabotaging each other, it isn't.

Only if what you lose through sabotage is worse than what you gain in other respects. In economics, we know what's wasted due to competition is more than compensated by what's gained. I'm suggesting this may be the case in other domains.

There's a certain French approach to pushing Muslims towards democracy which is quite different from the American one, and from other European ones too (let's call it laïcité at home, "constructive engagement" abroad). Better or worse? It depends, but trying different approaches can be a good thing.

Similarly, the EU is advancing democracy in the world differently than the US. It's not a huge difference. Again, what unites us is far more than what divides us.

France is no more an enemy of the US, to be fought or ignored, than New York is the enemy of Texas. Just (slightly) different. And our differences make us stronger.

That's not to deny that on specific issues, one side may be far more right than the other. Or even both may be right, because they are different. I'm just arguing against blanket statements against France or the French. Not really a very controversial point, I'd think. Calling France "the enemy" is childish, narrow-minded, or paranoid. And Americans who say Europe is declining ought to take a good look in the mirror.

Posted by: Kai Carver at December 9, 2004 04:36 PM

Diversity is strength.

hehe, good one.

Posted by: David at December 12, 2004 01:52 PM

I enjoyed French students at my university in the US telling me that America "has no culture."

This was in the late 80's.

I think France deserves every bit of vitriol it's getting, if only as re-payment with interest for past years of anti-American bullshit.

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Posted by: Loan at December 16, 2004 04:22 AM

Only a singularly ignorant cretin could argue that France has been an enemy of the United States. There wouldn't even be a United States without France. It was French military aid that won the Revolutionary War. Unless you think the Northern Alliance beat the Taliban. And if you want to get pissed off at people for opposing doomed military adventures, I suppose the French should be pissed at us...after all, Eisenhower refused to support their little invasion of Egypt.

But then it's not about France, is it? It's all about getting attention off the horrible screwups in Iraq. You know, patriotism is a beautiful thing. But ignorant pseudo-patriotism that conjures up fake fury to distract attention from the mistakes of incompetent leaders isn't patriotism at all. It's closer to treason.

This guy makes the case for France a lot better than I do.

Read on:

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