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France the New Refrain: Vive L’Amerique

5 minute read
Jordan Bonfante/Paris

“Reaganism is the guidepost to the future,” proclaims a commentator.

THE CHALLENGE OF REAGANISM, shouts a headline.

“Would you want Reaganism applied here?” asks a pollster.

The French, who are as fond of isms as they are of pate and Beaujolais, have been served up a succulent new buzz word by a conservative American President. In government offices and lycee classrooms, Reaganisme has become the touchstone of current discourse. Politicians, especially in the conservative opposition, measure themselves against it. Pundits ponder to what extent it might, or might not, be exportable to France.

There is far more to the fascination with Reagan than personal esteem for the President, who, polls show, would have won by more than 3 to 2 had last November’s election been held in France. The sentiment has sprouted from a relatively new bedrock enthusiasm for the U.S. and its values. Long notorious for their anti-Americanism, the prickly French have become more glowingly pro- American than at any other time since the early 1950s.

The trend is readily noticeable in the arts and media. Jack Lang, the assertive, France-first Minister of Culture, has dropped his complaints about “American cultural imperialism.” The proportion of U.S. programming on French television has increased from 9% only four years ago to 17%. Says Etienne Mougeotte, publisher of Tele 7 Jours, the French equivalent of TV Guide: “My children watch every segment of Dallas and Dynasty every week. Otherwise they would be out of it in school.”

In a recent poll that asked the French where they would prefer to live in the year 2000, older respondents put the U.S. second, after Switzerland, and those under 22 listed the U.S. first. Indeed, where some French youths once looked romantically toward Peking or Havana, they now dream of the jobs and joys of California.

Much of the new respect for America emanates from the French President’s office. After his return from the U.S. last spring, Francois Mitterrand praised the “genius” of Steven Jobs, 29-year-old founder of Apple Computer, and ordered his Cabinet to simplify the procedures for setting up new companies. Gaston Defferre, Minister for Planning, flew to Pittsburgh in November to pursue an agreement with Carnegie-Mellon University, which heads a 17-campus consortium that offers French firms direct access to U.S. research in automated manufacturing, robotics, artificial intelligence and computer- based education. “In Gaullist times French identity was to be defended against American domination,” says Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, author (The American Challenge) and former Cabinet minister who heads the government’s computer-development agency. “Now instead of being afraid of America, we are forging all possible links.” Despite disagreements over Central America and Libya, Mitterrand’s Socialist government has turned out to be among the Reagan Administration’s best allies in Europe, supporting it on most East-West issues, especially the deployment of new NATO missiles.

Rival parties are scrambling to show that they too appreciate the U.S. example. Former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, in his successful run for re-election to the National Assembly last September, made it a point to praise U.S. entrepreneurial dynamism. But the most enthusiastically pro-American politicians, according to polls, are the Gaullists. Although they were hostile to the U.S. in the ’60s and early ’70s, Gaullists are front and center among the politicians who now scramble to be photographed with U.S. Ambassador Evan Galbraith. Only the Communists, whose political power is shrinking, remain implacably critical of everything American.

The revival of the U.S. economy has played a large part in influencing French views. Says Paul Horne, Paris-based chief economist for Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co., a U.S. brokerage and investment house: “The U.S., with its strong recovery, its capacity for creating jobs, its enduring technological lead, has become the focus of fascination in the French economic world.” At the same time, many French people have become disenchanted with the Soviets. Says Francois Lagrange, a senior counselor in the French Premier’s office: “They cannot provide a high standard of living. They do not make marketable inventions. They cannot even make decent automobiles.”

In the 1960s, says University of Paris Political Scientist Olivier Duhamel, French intellectuals identified imperialism with the U.S. “Now they not only identify imperialism with the Soviet Union, they are even beginning to identify anti-imperialism with the U.S.” Not just Marxism, but the very idea of “collectivism” has waned in the French academic mind. “Pluralism,” “individualism,” “the limits of public power” are all increasingly in vogue.

For all that, there are definite limits to the enthusiasm for things American. Stepping up enforcement of laws dating back to 1966 that forbid the use of foreign phrases in advertisements, a special commissioner’s office has been handing out fines of up to $700 to firms that fail to translate American words like hamburger (bifteck hache) and show biz (industrie du spectacle). Officials are busy coining replacements for such computer terms as hardware (materiel) and software (logiciel). While the language may be under assault, French pride–and what would France be without it?–remains / indestructible. “We find it hard to admit direct American influence,” says Duhamel with a smile. “In the classroom, for instance, instead of admitting that we have rediscovered the American Revolution, we tend to say we have rediscovered Alexis de Tocqueville, who dissected it, and who was a great French political philosopher.”

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