Daniel W. Drezner

That old French anti-Americanism, it ain’t what it used to be

In first days after Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, there was a big spasm of media output about how the arrest revealed the massive cultural divide between France and the United States, yada, yada, yada.  Led by blowhard French intellectuals France’s cultural elite, anti-Americanism seemed ready to spike back to 2003 levels.  A funny thing happened in the ensuing ...

In first days after Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, there was a big spasm of media output about how the arrest revealed the massive cultural divide between France and the United States, yada, yada, yada.  Led by blowhard French intellectuals France’s cultural elite, anti-Americanism seemed ready to spike back to 2003 levels. 

A funny thing happened in the ensuing days, however, a curious countertrend has emerged — the wave of anti-American sentiment hasn’t spiked at all. 

Sophie Meunier, your humble blogger’s go-to expert on all things French, explains  in the Huffington Post that what’s happened instead has been far more interesting.  DSK’s arrest, along with the waves of information about his behavior, have caused French commentators to go through the five stages of grief in coping with the news.  Denial and anger did dominate the first few days, but now France is going through the bargaining phase:

With a few days hindsight, however, what is most surprising about the fallout of the DSK scandal in France is not how much, but rather how little displays of anti-Americanism it has provoked. To the contrary, the scandal is now turning into a teachable moment and a frank analysis of the comparative merits of French and American society. Perhaps this is the bargaining stage: if we understand the American system, perhaps we can expect it to treat one of our own fairly?

The flamboyant declarations by Bernard-Henri Lévy who was trying to help his friend by complaining that the American judge had treated DSK "like any other" subject of justice backfired. The next news cycle in France was about introspection. What if the American justice system actually had some features that could be replicated, such as the equality of treatment? A flurry of accusatory articles popped up in the French press denouncing how a defendant of DSK’s stature would never have gone through the same legal troubles in France -unlike a random "Benoit" or "Karim." As socialist and DSK friend Manuel Valls publicly confessed, criticizing the American justice system also puts the spotlight on the weaknesses of French justice. This realization that perhaps the Americans might have components in their justice system that should be replicated in France might have left many with the depressing thought – "maybe we are not as wonderful and superior as we thought: so what is now our place in the world?"

The New York Times’ Sarah Maslin Nir reaches a similar conclusion in her story on the French media’s reaction to the American media:

It was easy to spot the French men and women among the media hordes. Despite their fatigued condition, they were, well, better looking than many of their American counterparts, and many of them smoked cigarettes as they stood, corralled together, waiting for something to happen. They greeted one another with double kisses, one on each cheek.

There were some local customs that puzzled the French. Franck Georgel, a television reporter for the station M6, was mystified by how respectful American journalists were of police barricades set up around a Lower Manhattan building where Mr. Strauss-Kahn was staying. “In France maybe the barrier would have been dropped on the ground,” he said. “Here, you’re more, how do you say it? Civilisé.”

As he spoke, a non-French journalist outside the building, at 71 Broadway, helped a woman with a baby carriage make her way down the steps. “That’s American,” he declared. “That’s not really French.”

The Atlantic also has a good round-up on French media introspection.    

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