The French Way: How France Embraced and Rejected American Values and Power

March 22, 2012

In this dense, if repetitious, study of the modernisation of France, Richard Kuisel tells of a second French resistance. Not to German occupation, but to a foe pervading all of French life, namely Americanisation. Kuisel contends that in pursuit of modernity, the French have always measured themselves directly against their transatlantic cousins.

Measuring US influence over many areas, from diplomacy and defence, through the economy to high culture and everyday lifestyle, Kuisel tries to distinguish between elite responses and those of the general public. His presentation of high-policy issues is probably the best part of the book, although most of it will be familiar to specialists. He demonstrates with chilling clarity the pattern of US hegemony. The US decides its position, usually with little consultation; the French are the first to differ and attempt to raise support, unsuccessfully, among European allies. They then go along with the US decision, trying to present it in the best possible light. Such has been the case since the Suez crisis, at least, and French diplomats have long since worked out how to make the appropriate noises. It does not endear them to US power and their own subordinate role, but they have no real option; only over protection of their cultural industries and, to an extent, agriculture have they ever secured modest (and arguably temporary) victories against US domination.

In economic and social policy Kuisel shows how far US free-market business methods have eroded traditional notions of dirigisme, while also chipping away at the welfare state. France emerges as a key site of competition between neoliberal economics and a social model based on republican traditions of solidarity. French elites have struggled to retain much of the French social model (indeed, this is the main theme of the upcoming presidential contest), but have had to trim, often hiding behind anti-US rhetoric. The sense that, beneath their ideological rhetoric, French elites are extremely pragmatic runs strongly through this book.

The most striking findings concern culture, high and low. US products, from Hollywood to McDonald's, have often been seen to threaten French identity, especially when such fears combine with elite anxiety about the rise of English and decline of French as an international language. This has produced some amusing polemics between public intellectuals, but it is frankly hard to imagine Clint Eastwood or Martin Scorsese as serious threats to the French way of life. It is at this everyday level, in fact, where mass and not elite reactions come into play, that the whole France versus America issue starts to look over-dramatised. If an Aveyron peasant (there are still some, despite Kuisel's claims) is nagged by his children into visiting Disneyland or buying them a burger, does he think of this in the existential terms implied in the book's title? More likely he just gets on with it; he probably knows that his life is affected by a thing called globalisation, which may be vaguely connected to the US, but that is probably as far as it goes.

Popular reactions in France may well be closer to British attitudes. We do not suffer from problems about language (the Americans borrowed it from us); we have no complexes about being told what to do by Washington (because we hide behind a "special relationship"); we even embrace seamlessly some aspects of American life (we wear baseball caps as well as cricket hats). Perhaps this is a way into modernity; recognise the importance of certain realities such as globalisation, but refuse to get identity complexes about them. Some of Kuisel's elites might find it easier to follow this road.

The French Way: How France Embraced and Rejected American Values and Power

By Richard F. Kuisel. Princeton University Press. 544pp, £34.95. ISBN 9780691151816. Published 14 January 2012.

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