It’s World Cup time. One of the few advantages of being in academia is having exposure to people from all around the world. Just looking over the 32 WC teams, I find that I work with or am Facebook friends with people from 19 of the countries. This means I have a lot of people to talk smack to. Most are pretty good-natured about it although Spanish and Italian fans seem more sensitive.
Of course, the greatest smack-talking is reserved for the French. Not only do most Americans dislike France, the French team melted down in such beautifully spectacular fashion, I was openly making comparison to Agincourt (yes, I’m a nerd).
But someone recently asked me why Americans dislike the French so much. Britain, Spain and Germany have long histories and shared borders. So that rivalry is sensible. But why do Americans hate France so much, especially given the positive history between the two countries?
Part of it, of course, is an artifact of World War II. Not only did the French get thrashed easily, a part of the country collaborated with the enemy. More importantly, American soldiers liberating Europe did not get a positive impression of France. In the book Band of Brothers, the soldiers talk specifically about how they came to dislike the French — as opposed to the close bonds they forged with the Brits, Italians, Dutch, Belgians and even the Germans. The biggest reason was that the French seemed to take forever to start rebuilding the comparatively minor damage their country sustained in the war. All the others immediately began rebuilding their shattered nations.
But to my recollection, the anti-French sentiment really got going in the 1980’s. This was, I think, the result of two things. First, was an explosion of American tourism. Millions of Americans were suddenly visiting countries all over the world. And while most countries — Italy and Switzerland especially — were friendly, France was not. Or, more accurately, Paris was not. People I knew who went into rural France had wonderful times and met numerous friendly welcoming people. One couple I knew were at Normandy on the anniversary of D-Day and got toasted by the Frenchmen in honor of the liberation.
The second thing that stimulated anti-French sentiment was the Libya bombing. In 1986, in response to terrorism and a conflict in the Gulf of Sidra, Reagan ordered the bombing of terrorist camps and other facilities in Libya. What was significant was that France, Spain and Italy refused flyover rights from the UK, so our planes had to divert a long way around. This infuriated Americans, especially when one plane did not come back. Why Spain and Italy were ignored is a bit mysterious (Spain did allow on damaged aircraft to land on their airbase). Why Malta, which warned Libya of the attack, was ignored, is also a mystery.
I think it was this combination of events that really got things going. I can remember, after the Libya raid, Americans returning French cheese, wine and perfume to French embassies. And French actions since then have only tended to exacerbate the situation — opposition to the Iraq War in particular.
Of course, certain politicians and pundits have stoked this fire, since France makes a good whipping boy and a good counter-example to many liberal policies.
I actually think a lot of the sentiment is misguided. In my limited experience, I have not found Europeans in general or French people in particular to be very anti-American. Smack talking aside, most of my European friends were happy to see the US do well in the World Cup. And every day, our shores are hit by thousands of Europeans coming here to visit or work.
They disagree with a lot of our politics. And a lot of pundits have a tendency to confuse being, say, “ant-Bush” with being “anti-American”. But that could be said of a lot of countries.
Update: Confession of a brain cramp. I forgot to include Charles de Gaulle who was critical of the US, left us holding the bag in Vietnam and removed France from NATO command.