U.S.-French relations complicated by history, culture and stereotypes

Elizabeth Dunbar

The stereotype goes like this: The French artist dines on wine and cheese and talks diplomatically about war, while the self-reliant American cowboy cleans his gun, indifferent to a world of opposition and ready to shoot.

But for those familiar with the two countries, the recent debate about Iraq illustrates a complex relationship reaching beyond stereotypes into a deeply rooted historical and cultural exchange.

They see the French artist sporting his Levi’s before seeing the latest U.S. box office hit, and the American cowboy buying a bottle of Bordeaux.

To war or not to war

Just as the French question the George W. Bush administration’s Iraq policies, Americans have criticized France for threatening to veto a U.N. resolution to authorize the use of force in Iraq.

“There’s been a long tradition of French inclination toward wanting to assert their independence from the U.S.,” University history professor J.B. Shank said. “That’s often been construed in the U.S. as a kind of stubbornness.”

Sebastien Buttet, a doctoral economics student from France, said France has always been an important nation that wants to maintain its power.

“They want to separate the (European Union) from the U.S. and make a more powerful statement for the EU,” he said, adding that France also has an economic stake in the Middle East.

Peter Robinson, a University French professor, said France and other European nations worry a wave of terrorism could follow an attack on Iraq.

“These countries have lived with terrorism and dealt with the extreme impossibility of fighting it,” Robinson said.

The United States thinks it can achieve the kind of government it wants in Iraq, Robinson said, but France has learned from its colonial history.

“France understands that to be a very dangerous illusion,” he said. “All they can do is look on in dismay at the U.S., because the U.S. is behaving almost like France and Britain behaved in the 19th century.”

Shank said disagreements between France and the United States about Iraq come from different readings of the situation.

“Part of the French effort is to see the Middle East with its own complexities instead of with an ‘us versus them’ mentality,” Shank said.

But the relationship between France and the United States also stems from deep-seated historical identities, said Kim Munholland, a University history professor on leave in France.

“Because of the patterns that have developed during and after World War II, my view is that there is almost a built-in strain in that relationship,” he said.

Robinson said the French still harbor resentment from World War II.

“The French were deeply humiliated by the second world war,” he said.

“When it was over, France had to invent a sense of themselves that they had actually resisted the Nazis,” Robinson said, adding that many of the war museums in France he has visited make it seem as if France won the war.

“Americans have always been kind of condescending toward the French ever since the second world war,” he said.

Policies vs. people

Despite diplomatic differences, Munholland said, the French are able to distinguish between Americans and the U.S. government.

“They have developed a personal dislike toward Mr. Bush and an attitude that seems to them to be bullying and arrogant,” he said.

Many Americans seem to oppose Bush’s policies, said Jean-Christophe Prudhomme, a graduate student from France.

“There’s kind of a dichotomy between the Bush administration and the people,” said Prudhomme, who arrived in Minneapolis in August. “I was pleased to see that a lot of Americans are against the war.”

Buttet said people’s opinions about the situation in Iraq are not based on nationality.

“I’m against the war, but not necessarily because I’m French,” he said. “It’s just my personal perspective.”

University mechanical engineering professor Steven Girshick works with scientists from France and other European countries. He said research relationships are not usually affected by government policy.

“Those (European) scientists look at their American colleagues no differently,” he said. “They understand it’s a big country with lots of points of view.”

That does not mean diplomatic relations are not discussed, Girshick said.

“With international visitors it’s a normal topic of conversation,” he said. “It’s not that Europeans hate the U.S. There’s a tremendous amount they love and admire about the U.S. and a lot that they’re horrified with.”

Global studies junior Hadley Anderson said most of the French people she encountered during her semester in France last fall did not lash out at her for being American.

However, she said one man expressed anger because of her nationality.

“He was yelling at me as if I personally liked to make war,” she said.

David Anderson, a partner in France 44, which sells French wine and food, said Americans’ thoughts about the war do not necessarily reflect what they purchase.

“I think most Americans do differentiate between the French government and the French people,” he said.

Brian Daunheimer, owner of the wine wholesaler Grand Pere Wines, said current relations between France and the United States have not hurt sales in the Twin Cities.

“The geopolitical situation is not going to dissuade them from buying French wine,” Daunheimer said.

Munholland said his 40 years of traveling to France have showed him people are friendly and willing to discuss why Americans and the French might differ.

“There is a certain admiration for American accomplishments, combined with reservations about American materialism and perceived lack of culture and sophistication,” Munholland said.

Robinson, who went to France as a teenager, said a sense of pride exists in both countries.

“The French are as proud of their country as Americans are of theirs,” he said. “I’ve always felt torn between the two countries. I love both of them, but neither one understands the other very well.”

Elizabeth Dunbar covers international affairs and welcomes comments at

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