Americans have their stereotypes for the French: the baguette-eating, cigarette-smoking, smelly cheese-eaters. However, Americans should know that the French have their stereotypes too that are perhaps more hurtful due to their sophistication. Americans claim that there is a general reflexive anti-American attitude in France. This alleged ‘hatred’ or ‘resentment’ has been fueled by constant historical and cultural misconceptions. Furthermore, France and the US have thus often found themselves at political loggerheads but do these altercations suggest that the French as a whole dislike Americans?
From a historical point of view, it is apparent that there have always been tensions among the two countries. The historical narrative that brought forth anti-American stereotypes began after WWII. In my experience, in French history classes children are taught that the US arrived on the European continent as a great liberator and helped end the war by defeating Nazi Germany.
Hence the first impression which is imprinted upon the French child is that the US is a powerful military nation. France’s humiliating defeat coinciding with the US’s victory during WWII came as a huge blow to the pride of the French nation which felt it had lost the great prestige it once had. Taking this into account, it’s not surprising that Charles de Gaulle attempted to muscle the US and Britain out of Europe and even decided to forsake NATO in 1966. Former President Jacques Chirac’s decision to oppose the US invasion in Iraq, and its aftermath, are rooted in the anti-American sentiments espoused by the French population. Following the invasion, George W. Bush became the laughing stock of French media, as an embodiment of the ‘ignorant American’ stereotype. The election of Barrack Obama saw the French rekindle their respect for the US as he represented the progressive vision France wanted Americans to adopt. Unfortunately, the French quickly lost this respect after the sovereign debt crisis, which they mostly blamed on the US.
There is in fact a general consensus among the French that they are intellectually and spiritually superior to Americans. The French assert that their rich philosophical and historical heritage gives them the license to downgrade American cultural values. They assume that the US culture adheres to ‘black-and-white’ thinking, with no allowances for different variables, conditions, and contexts in approaches to problem solving. This frames the argument misleadingly and obscures rational, honest debate. The US is thus depicted as a politico-economic machine with a cut-throat philosophy. On the one hand, you have the conservatives and on the other, the ultra-liberals.
The controversial debate on gay marriage in France is an interesting example of the French political process. The French position on gay marriage is very complex and the debate on the issue advanced very slowly. The fact of the matter is that the French take their time and carefully consider both sides of the argument before making a decision, believing all arguments to contain a certain degree of truth.
French conceptions about Americans are unfortunately only reinforced when the French meet Americans. From my personal experience, I have noticed that the French are eager to determine whether an American fits their preconceived stereotype. I have met many American exchange students during my studies in France. The French embraced the American guests and stressed their respect for American culture, whilst nonetheless denigrating their politics. What is interesting is the behaviour of the French people during encounters with Americans. The average French person will not bash the US to American tourists; on the contrary they will call it progressive. To avoid being labelled a stereotype, the American will have to prove that he or she has a critical mind toward the US. Since the French view Americans as overly proud and conservative people, self-reflection is applauded.
Aside from encounters with Americans, only a few reference points remain. American TV Shows or fast-food chains are often used to define and understand American culture. In this sense, the French are subjugated to the representation of US citizens through television. This is where French hypocrisy emerges: the French criticise a system that they themselves find entertaining.
I believe that the stereotype of Americans the French possess is imprinted upon the people by society and is taught in schools. There is little room for informed reflection when our opinion is conditioned to such a degree. The irony is that the French believe that they have an educational system that encourages personal reflection, to which they credit their cultural and historical heritage. Americans are considered subjugated and formatted by their society, partly due to the fact that they are a young nation. The only thing separating the French from the Americans in this regard is the American caricature thinking in black-and-white, versus the reasonable and considered French person.
The idea that Americans are indoctrinated to this fallacy is underlined by their passiveness to injustice or government incompetence. The French thus see Americans as vulnerable to ‘bandwagon mentality’ as they are incapable or unwilling to stand up and rebel against injustice. The French are the first people to criticise their own system, while maintaining their national pride. Although strikes and protests do occur in the US, the French downgrade these movements and their dependence on US media coverage. US media is considered by the French as a politicised theatrical ‘mise en scene’ rather than an instrument of truth. Therefore for the French the US media output cannot be a reflection of American culture.
As narrow-minded as it may sound, I admit that I am generally a supporter of stereotypes as a tool of social and cultural classification. To put it as delicately as I can, it is a universal truth that Americans like their sweet tasty hamburgers and that the French love to indulge themselves in the orgasmic tenderness of baguettes. Nonetheless, the American view that French people dislike them is mostly incorrect and exaggerated. Many, probably most and perhaps even all French people hate America. However, this omnipresent and irrational hatred of America does not extend to Americans nor to their music, fashion, art and other cultural products. The ‘dislike’ is reserved for the reactionary politics, conservative social practices, relentless economics and general stuffiness of American culture.