Political campaigns seem much more brutal in the U.S. than in France, even presidential primaries. One of the distinct features of American politics is negative campaigning - mostly TV ads showing the opponent in a negative light, something unheard of in France.
Despite the feeling that every year, lobbyists reach new lows, negative campaigns have always been part of American politics - since the Founding Fathers. (Adams vs. Jefferson was so bad so bad that it almost “tore the Republic apart”, says one historian - see here too)
All sorts of themes can be exploited, including surprising ones.
In 2004, for instance, John Kerry, the Democratic candidate running against George W. Bush was portrayed as “being too French”.
(John Kerry) is said to betray a dubious fondness for things French, even the language. A recent comment from Commerce Secretary Don Evans that the Massachusetts Democrat is "of a different political stripe and looks French" was only the latest of several jibes, mainly from conservative talk-show hosts and columnists, that have included allusions to "Monsieur Kerry" and "Jean Chéri." (NYTimes)
France-bashing has often been a favorite of some Americans, usually Republicans, and its popularity took a new hit among pro-war conservatives in the months following 2003 when France opposed the war in Iraq at the UN Security Council. (Remember "freedom fries"?).
To the Republicans, France embodies everything they hate about Europe:
-a penchant for conciliatory resolutions,
-a centralized government,
-elitism and intellectualism and,
-a more collective mentality.
But this year, the irony is that the two most serious contenders for the GOP presidential candidacy have had some unique exposition to French culture:
- Newt Gingrich - the favorite in the poll at this point - was partly raised in France, where his step-father was stationed. Gingrich had a sort of epiphany when he visited Verdun. (here and here) and he has compared himself to... De Gaulle in the past. He also likes to present himself as a professor of history (which he has been, despite his surprising comments on international affairs sometimes). Not exactly you’re anti-intellectual Republican.
- As for Mitt Romney, (2nd in the polls), he not only spent time in France as a Mormon missionary, - and not exactly the kind of frugal life he has tried to present. (see here or here) - but he even speaks French and has not tried to hide it. This, however, has not prevented him from making ridiculous statement on France such as the notion that marriage in France can be “contracted in renewable seven-year terms”. Unheard of in France!
The clip shows Romney welcoming francophone volunteers to the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, and it is mock-subtitled with past comments of his that show he kept changing his mind (Romney is often accused of being a flip-flop).
According to the press release, it is “payback for Republicans mocking John Kerry for his French-speaking abilities in ads”.
“So our goal here is to remind GOP primary and caucus voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that Mitt Romney is a left wing radical who has, in all likelihood, hung out with socialistic, atheistic cheese-eaters like Jean Paul Sartre.” (here)I personally think it is rather funny. If anything, it makes fun of France-bashing in some Republican circles.
To be fair, France can be the butt of jokes outside Republican circles:
- Comedians Conan O'Brian, Jay Leno, or David Letterman have often made a number of French jokes.
"A lot of folks are still demanding more evidence before they actually consider Iraq a threat. For example, France wants more evidence. And you know I'm thinking, the last time France wanted more evidence they rolled right through Paris with the German flag." —David Letterman
"American tourists in Paris are reported to being yelled at, spit upon, and attacked by the French. Thank God things are getting back to normal." —Jay Leno
- The brand Subway in 2005 ran this campaign linking the French to chickens (a symbol of cowardice):
- or the derogatory term "cheese eating surrender monkeys", coined by the writers of Simpson and later used by journalists and pundits.
A number of reasons why France and the French are often the butt of jokes have been given over the years:
- the power explanation: some say it's because there is no French lobby in the U.S. because French immigration to North America was more or less insignificant. (cf. Justin Vaisse)
- the Universalist explanation: others point out to the fact that both countries were born of revolutions, and claim for universalism (Bourdieu)
- the British explanation: as a follow up to the Romney ad last week, Slate had an article on where France-bashing may come from, and it may be mostly from the British. The title of their article is, however greatly misleading, I think: "Why do Americans Hate the French" is immensely exaggerated.
I believe the explanations are numerous and complex and they are based on cross-cultural differences which are both subtle and deeply embedded in our views of the world and ourselves. It is the ongoing exploration of these differences which has motivated this blog. It is fascinating when current events give us an opportunity to reflect on these differences and misunderstandings.
That being said, the whole topic of "France bashing" should probably not be taken too seriously. As a French man who has been to the U.S. many times over the last 25 years, I have never personally experienced negative bias for being French, and I have always been very welcome. If anything, being French has helped me a great deal.
The paradox is that the French may be the stinky Pepe Le Pew to some, yet, French perfume and clothing are among the most popular; France may be a socialist country, but a lot of Americans dream of visiting Paris (and a lot of them do). These apparent paradoxes and my own experience makes me believe that there is no much harm done, and I strongly disagree with that "Americans hate the French".
Last, but not least, some comedians are also great defenders of France :