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The Coming Revival in French-American Relations

With the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, French-American relations reached a low point. The Bush Administration felt betrayed by French diplomatic tactics at the United Nations, while French President Jacques Chirac felt confirmed in his mistrust of the sole superpower and his call for a multipolar world. Today, on the eve of the French presidential elections, opinion polls show that three-quarters of French voters believe that France should distance itself from the United States.

Despite a long history of alliance dating back to the American Revolution and including two world wars, France has always had a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the US, and the Iraq War was not the first time that a controversial security policy undercut America’s attractiveness in France. Polls show similar reactions after the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Vietnam War in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and the deployment of intermediate range missiles in Europe in the early 1980’s.

In addition, France has long had a strand of cultural anti-Americanism. Some conservatives disliked the crude egalitarianism of American culture, while some on the left saw America’s faith in markets as a symbol of capitalist exploitation of the working class. After World War II, France banned Coca-Cola for a time, and, more recently, the farmer José Bové became a folk hero by destroying a McDonald’s restaurant. But the French still flock to McDonald’s and to theatres playing American movies, despite limits on their import.

While such ambivalence will not change, French-American relations are likely to improve no matter which of the three leading candidates prevails in the final round of voting on May 6, in part owing to Chirac’s exit. In fact, French-American relations have already begun to improve, as both sides realized that their pubic dispute was damaging their interests. The exit of some of the most strident neo-conservatives in the Bush administration over the past year has also helped, and with growing opposition to the Iraq War, some Americans are beginning to think that the French may have had a point after all.