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Magazine / Vantage Point

Vive la Différence

The United States and France are at it again over Libya. Given the relationship, should anyone be surprised?

Casablanca: Rick and Louis(AP Photo)

photo of Michael Hirsh
April 7, 2011

Is there any greater closing scene in movie history than the fade-out shot of Rick and Louis walking off together across a fog-shrouded tarmac in Casablanca? Throughout the film, the American and the Frenchman have had an amiable but tense relationship. But now Rick, the archetypal American antihero, and Louis, the classic French “poor corrupt official” (as he describes himself), have just conspired to get rid of Maj. Strasser, thus symbolically joining arms against the Third Reich. Louis, the police prefect, proposes they flee to join a Free French garrison together. “Louis,” says Rick, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

That description may be a bit overripe when it comes to relations between America and France. But it has been a glorious—and galling—couple of centuries in bed with those intermittently lovable French, an off-and-on relationship that waxes and wanes depending on the crisis and the times. The theme goes back to the very beginnings of both republics. French philosophical ideas (Rousseau and Montesquieu, mainly) helped to drive the American Revolution. That event, in turn, helped to inspire the French Revolution. And, yes, there were some “beautiful friendships” over the years.

The young Marquis de Lafayette was said to have idolized George Washington (he named his only son George Washington Lafayette); and Benjamin Franklin became the toast of Parisian society. “Lafayette, we are here!” proclaimed Gen. John J. Pershing’s aide upon landing in France in 1917, and Charles de Gaulle so admired John Kennedy that he said he didn’t need to see photographic evidence of Soviet missile sites in 1962: “A great nation like yours would not act if there were any doubt,” de Gaulle said. And then there was that headline in Le Monde after 9/11: “We are all Americans.”


Things nearly always went sour, of course. As early as John Adams’s administration, the two countries almost went to war; Woodrow Wilson and Georges Clemenceau quarreled bitterly at the Paris peace conference in 1919; and despite the tight alliance of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt wanted nothing to do with the haughty de Gaulle. Later, Paris and Washington fell out over the Cold War, when France withdrew its military from NATO for a time.

All of this cantankerous back-and-forth has been healthy.

More recently, things have grown even more difficult. The last couple of decades have been as interesting and rocky as any in Franco-American history. The French have resisted American efforts to define the post-Cold War era, even when Washington tried to do so benignly. In 2000, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine was the only delegate from a major democracy to refuse to sign the declaration creating the Community of Democracies in Warsaw. The idea was “oversimplistic,” Vedrine sniffed. Americans “think a little too much that democracy is a sort of religion, and the only thing you have to do is convert people.”

During the run-up to the war in Iraq, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, with self-evident delight, kibitzed at the United Nations to prevent a Security Council resolution. “The use of force against Iraq is not justified,” he declared. We know what followed: a skein of Francophobia across America, culminating in the spread of that immortal put-down, “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” and the mercifully brief appearance of “freedom fries” on restaurant menus.

Today it is the French who are pushing aggressively for more intervention—and democracy-building—in the Arab world while the Americans are holding back. Much has been made of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s alleged political motivations for being so bold—he is weak and unpopular at home—and the peculiar role played by French philosopher/media prince Bernard-Henri Levy in inducing Sarkozy to support the Libyan opposition.

But the more interesting—and potentially significant—difference between Washington and Paris is over the meaning of the intervention. It is clear that the French would like to see the U.S. and NATO air attacks as a precedent—a clear message to the other Arab regimes and even to Iran over its nuclear program. President Obama and his team, meanwhile, are denying that the intervention means any such thing. “We don’t make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent,” Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough said last week.

The administration believes that each Arab country “is unique nationally, that each of them, frankly, is nationally motivated; it’s not an international thing by any means.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is probably leaving by summer and seems to be speaking his mind these days, declared bluntly that
the U.S. would not even arm the Libyan rebels. “There are plenty of sources for it other than the United States,” he told the House Armed Services Committee. Read: France and Britain.

So once again, the grand old alliance is under strain. Taking a longer perspective, I would argue all of this cantankerous back-and-forth has been healthy overall. It’s not just that deeper U.S.-French common interests have always prevailed; it’s that both countries have learned from each other, through the philosophical exchange of ideas and the dialectic of experience. The French played a useful role in checking American hubris in Iraq (and let’s be frank: They were right). Now they are seeking to check what may be an excess of restraint.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing that Obama has been retreating from the martial activism of the George W. Bush years, but it’s also not terrible to have a Sarkozy nipping somewhat intelligently at his heels from abroad (while less-than-credible critics are slamming him at home). Barack and Nick will never be Rick and Louis, but we should be glad they’re on the same side. More or less. 

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