Can Europe Make It?

The politics of French-bashing

Bashing everything French is in fashion these days, but one would be better advised to take these attacks by the US and UK media with a pinch of salt.

Vahid Nick Pay
29 January 2014
The Economist. All rights reserved.

The Economist. All rights reserved.

The Economist. All rights reserved.

The Economist. All rights reserved.

In the English-speaking media, a significant number of outlets apparently devote most of their European coverage to contempt for south European countries such as Italy or Greece. But France seems to inspire unmatched opprobrium. As the US TV presenter and comedian Bill Maher once averred, labelling a politician (or an idea) as “French” appears to be the ultimate clincher against that current of thought.

A week does not go by without major British and American news outlets such as the BBC, The Independent, Newsweek, The Economist, or The Guardian to name only a few, dedicating considerable space to a critical analysis of various aspects of French society, from scrutinizing the body shapes of French women, the cleanliness of the French or their sexual habits, to the national economy or the internal and external policies of the state. Even on a more mundane level we are bombarded with depictions of this proclaimed Frenchness - from ads to depiction of French characters in American movies such as Sex & the City. The underlying assumption of such analysis is that France is made up of one single monolithic state of ideas with an impressive internal homogeneity and a fundamental incongruity with all external world values. 

Moving between London and Paris for numerous engagements in the political and media circles of both countries, I never cease to marvel, not only at the sheer extent of “French-bashing” practices within the British media, but most surprisingly by the near total absence of reciprocity in the French media.

Some scholars attribute this to the competing universalist roles that the US (and by extension the UK) political and economic models on the one side and the French one on the other, claim to be representing. Others insist on cultural underpinnings in societies which at times have perceived themselves as occupying diametrically opposing poles.

A combination of all these factors might for instance account for the momentous public media efforts to amplify all economic ratings of the French economy by neoliberal evaluation agencies, which are promptly picked up and magnified in authoritative economic reviews. French-bashing even extends to domestic policies, like the French government’s proposal to tax high revenues at a 75 percent rate. This gave rise to a furious barrage of comments and derision from British circles, for example when London mayor Boris Johnson announced that the French government is overtaken by the sans culottes, mocking the French business model and prophesying a largescale flight of capital from Paris to London.

David Cameron even went so far as officially proclaiming at a G20 summit that the UK would “roll out the red carpet” for French firms escaping the unfriendly economic environment of their country. In the absence of actual evidence that such mass exodus has in fact occurred, one would expect a more open-minded approach towards the possible social benefits of this basic solidarity contribution in a time of economic hardship for all western economies and beyond. No need to add that exorbitant disparities between individual salaries, including the ones enjoyed by many in the British media, indeed provide evidence that the neoliberal order leads to distributive injustice. 

Rival worldviews

There also appears to be a wide gap at the political level. In many respects, France has continuously tried to pursue a relatively independent international diplomacy. The French government’s refusal and even denunciation of the US-led, UK-backed invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a good example.  While other countries also refrained from supporting western intervention, the severity with which the French stand was treated by the Anglo-Saxon media was indeed memorable. More recently similar patterns could be observed in the coverage of the UN-endorsed French intervention in Mali and the Republic of Central Africa which were promptly connected to, or at least evaluated against, a backdrop of French new-colonial campaigns in Africa and so-called Françafrique policies.

Now whether France actually does represent an alternative “republican” system of values to the liberal world is yet to be fully explored and studied in its numerous aspects, but it is evident that significant French normative, social and economic policies do indeed go against the prevailing trends of global capitalism. Think for instance, of the French government’s insistence on subsidizing art and culture in the face of a global onslaught by hegemonic multinational entertainment corporations. This very fact has brought France into head-on confrontation with proposals such as the creation of a European and North American common market which France, and indeed only France, insists should be mindful of the local cultural aspects, and not leave them at the mercy of the international business markets.  

At a more social level, France, like most other European countries, is grappling with the challenge of multiculturalism. It has to be acknowledged that a considerable part of the current French Government is composed of people of north-African descent who could prove beneficial to giving a voice to the whole range of societal values and convictions. Nevertheless, social policies on the ground (e.g. the headscarf ban) are yet to be fully tested, not only in France but also in Germany and the UK. One might argue that this is but the necessary trial and error process that a republican state should undertake to actively promote the so-called “politics of belonging”. Again, and unsurprisingly, the Anglophone media went out of their way to interpret these as the symptoms of a French social malaise, a sign of closure to external values and even as an outright attack on individual freedom.  

We might all one day wake up to the sudden revelation of the superiority of laissez-faire policies, but till then it would be unwise to overlook the basic values of human rights and solidarity. These must be universal, actively promoted and assertively implemented. Take, for example, the horrendous practice of female genital mutilation. This is one of many subjects which the British media have chosen to conveniently ignore as it poses significant challenges to the liberalist “respect for difference”. Nevertheless, the data speaks for itself and a quick comparative study reveals that the French system has had more success in fighting such medieval practices, judging by the number of cases brought to justice. Thus, before embarking on the English-speaking public media band-wagon for an overall assault on a certain worldview, wouldn't people be well advised to take such claims with a pinch of salt, and evaluate the actual impact of 'republican' policies in a long term perspective?

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