by Adrian Sheppe
In the 1970s, France’s traditional image of its own significance in world affairs was severely dented by a series of events taking place both inside France and around the world. The French started to feel that their primacy among nations as a role model for all nations in the art of living was being challenged by a new way of life coming from America. The French were not pleased with this American interloper, whom they thought vulgar and uncouth. The result was France’s decade-long twin phenomenon of growing self-doubt as a nation and of an ever intensifying anti-Americanism.
France had always been in her own eyes an exemplary country. Since at least Louis XIII, France had always been a model for how to live. During the early 20th century, France believed they led the world in matters cultural, political, intellectual, gastronomic – in short, in their demonstrably superior French way of life. “Leben wie Gott in Frankreich” is roughly translated as “live like God in France” (McCrosky). Presumably God could choose to live anywhere – where else would God live if not in France? Convinced of their superiority to other nations in most matters of earthly accomplishment , the French felt compelled to export their way of life to less enlightened lands around the world – this is what they called “le rayonnement français” – and it was for nearly 400 years the mission of France. France leading the world was perhaps the most unshakeable myth underlying what it meant to be truly French (Cosgrove). They felt that they had the best of everything – an all encompassing “savoir-vivre,” envied by the entire world. Proof of this was everywhere: in their spectacular cuisine and unmatched wines, in their fashion, in their art and architecture, in their racial, political and religious tolerance, and even in the sun-kissed geography of a country blessed with unsurpassed natural beauty. But this sense of French exceptionalism was to be dashed to pieces, bitterly, during the 1970s, under the influence of forces in large part beyond the control of France’s cultural and intellectual establishment; and France became quite worried about her position in world affairs. In the 1970s, the American invasion of France had begun in earnest.
Signs of growing French antipathy towards America were becoming more and more prevalent in the 1970’s. Anti-Americanism had gotten a boost with the publication in 1967 of Jean Jacques Servan-Schreiber’s phenomenally influential and best-selling book Le Défi Américain. Servan-Schreiber warned the French public that France and French values were being submerged by American influence, technology, culture, and wealth (“The American Challenge– Brittanica Online”). The book suggested in no uncertain terms that French political and economic weakness, France’s inability to address a new form of modernity distinctly different from the old, and her lack of self-confidence would all lead to an ever increasing encroachment of American values into the French way of life, both domestically and around the world, in places like francophone Africa. France would submit and become a “client-state” for the United States (Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber – Wikepedia”). It wasn’t just a French problem of course. Servan-Schreiber wrote that Europe as a whole was abdicating its future, foregoing a chance to catch up with the technology and skills that the Americans had already mastered and were using to their sole advantage (Kuisel).
Though anti-Americanism was not unknown outside France, France’s historic myths about herself were destined to clash with the tidal wave of American influence rolling across Europe. It was during the 1970s that many large American corporations set up huge operations in France (with IBM being perhaps the most prominent example). US corporations were quickly seen with suspicion, as dominating local competition (like the French computer manufacturer Compagnie des Machines Bull, “Bull – Wikipedia”). This created an increasing feeling of disdain towards the opening of American beachhead establishments in France, especially in the field of cuisine where fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s were growing in size and popularity. The cultural elite of France were not inclined to try these stop-and-go restaurants that would ruin the nation’s appreciation for fine cuisine. But anti-Americanism was not just the preserve of the corporate sector. In politics, the French were characterized by a virulent criticism for most aspects of American foreign policy during the 1970s (Gienot-Hecht). In the growing culture wars, France passed new “local content” laws which were supposed to protect French television and cinema from being overwhelmed by cheap, crass American imports(Karen).
At the same time that France was being subjected to an unprecedented invasion of technology and consumerism, she was losing ground in her own right in many ways. The 1970s were indeed a very rough period politically and economically for the country. As far forward as 1970, France saw herself as a world power of first rank; she represented, or so it was thought, an important middle ground between the extremes of US capitalism and Soviet communism(1960s France). In many ways, as the 1970s dawned, France was still living off of its victory from the two World Wars. America had always been respected for her power but not for her contributions to world culture and standing. Indeed, Georges Clemenceau, who had led France through the first world war, once said that “America was the only country that had gone from barbarism to decadence without passing though civilization”(“Georges Clemenceau Quotes”). France, on the other hand, had always been the guiding light of world civilization, a model for all. Throughout the 1970’s, however, France was feeling less and less confident about its position in the world. During the 1970’s, France’s “way of life” was weakened quite a bit. President DeGaulle and President Pompidou, epochal military and political leaders of the old guard who had helped rebuild the country after the second world war, passed away in 1970 and 1974 respectively. As well as losing leaders, France’s economy took a large hit as many major industries had crippling strikes. Companies affected included the Renault Car Company and French steel and mining companies. The most significant and worst impact on the French economy, though, came from the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo ; a quadrupling of energy prices in France caused a major contraction of the economy and led to the first waves of mass layoffs (“Europedia – La Crise de 1973”). (The embargo did have the benefit of turning France into a world leader in nuclear energy production). This contributed to a decade long malaise about France’s inability to compete in the new world order then taking form. Even French intellectual life was in no way what people had learned to expect from it. The lone remaining world class philosopher France had was Jean Paul Sartre. Though he passed in 1980, he was long past his prime, having published virtually nothing of consequence since the late 1950’s. (Sartre) French movies and music could not handle the competition from American and English imports. French cuisine was being invaded by the introduction of fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s.
All of these events and phenomena caused France to reevaluate itself and determine why it was in such a disrupted mode. The French wondered: was France in terminal decline? And if so, whose fault was it? To them it seemed clear that the Americans were responsible for pushing France aside as a world power with their emphasis on money, speed, technology, and efficiency (Kuisel and “Jean_Jacques Servan-Schreiber – Wikipedia”).
In the end, the 1970’s were a hinge decade for France. The country had to transition from pre-eminence to middling status and this in so many areas of modern life. The old, 19th century French view of France leading the world had to give way to a more modern and modest view of a middle-rank country competing with others for station and wealth at the dawn of the the 21st century. This France had to accept a smaller, though undeniably vital, role as a player in a multi-polar, inter-connected world where no nation can pretend to be a model for others.
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