Monday, January 31, 2005

Follow-Up (Anti-American Nights): "The French"

Perhaps inevitably, my “photo essay” on the Parisian “Anti-American Nights” elicited some harsh words about “the French”, both in the comments section here and in comments sections and forums elsewhere on the web. It is a mistake, however, to regard the anti-American bile to which some of the visitors to the “American Nights” in Paris’s 3rd arrondissement gave expression as representative of the attitude of “the French” as such.

In the first place, the 3rd arrondissement of Paris is not France. The principal supports of anti-Americanism as in ideology in contemporary France are to be found among the governmental, academic and media elites, and the anti-Americanism they peddle finds its most favorable echo also among relatively privileged segments of the French population: those that can easily identify with the elites or even aspire to belong to them. As I indicated in my essay, the sociological profile of the average resident of the 3rd arrondissement – relatively densely populated by “bobos” [bourgeois bohemians] or members of the so-called “caviar left” – would put him or her squarely in this latter category. Setting aside the continuing but dwindling influence of the French Communist Party among unionized workers, more popular segments of the population are not as affected or at least not as seriously affected by the anti-American virus. I strongly doubt that an event similar to the 3rd arrondissement’s “American Nights” held, for instance, in a more modest neighborhood somewhere in the French provinces would have elicited similarly hateful reactions. Indeed, given that the “American Nights” of the 3rd arrondissement were clearly designed to elicit such hateful reactions, I strongly suspect that a similar event held in a more modest neighborhood in the provinces would only have inspired indifference. On the other hand, given a certain affinity for American culture that is also quite evident among more popular segments of the population – and that the elites attempt to combat in the name of the French “cultural exception” or even (hypocritically) in the name of “cultural diversity” – an event organized with the sincere intention of promoting “understanding” of American political and cultural trends might in fact have been a great success.

This brings me to my second point, since, despite the alibi created by the quaint outdoor performances, the “American Nights” hosted by the Mayor’s office of the 3rd arrondissement were clearly not organized with any such intention. As discussed in my essay, starting with the poster for the event and its not-so-subtle invocation of the phantasm of American “empire”, the essentially hostile spirit animating the “American Nights” was abundantly obvious in virtually all their programmatic details. Indeed, the “indoor” program constituted a veritable catalogue of the anti-American “memes” which have been the lifeblood of so much of the French (and, more generally, European) media for the last four years: “racist” criminal justice (“A Perfect Suspect”), “imperial” foreign policy (Ken Loach on 9/11), media tycoons (Rupert Murdoch, of course), “bad” cops (Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant”) and so on. As I stressed in my piece, what is especially notable about the event is that Parisian municipal government officials should thus have hosted and subsidized what amounted to two nights of anti-American incitement. It is hardly surprising that many of the visitors should have proven susceptible to this incitement. If they were not susceptible, they would likely have not attended.

Nonetheless, even among the public at the 3rd arrondissement’s “American Nights”, there were some who seemingly came in the naive belief that the event would be about the “understanding” the Mayor's office had advertised. This was reflected here and there in some neutral or even friendly grafitti.

In short, one should certainly not imagine that all “the French” are impressed by the anti-American histrionics of the French elites. As one polite middle aged lady who spoke with Trans-Int’s correspondent at the “American Nights” put it: “Do you know what’s the difference between France and Belgium? Belgium is a small country and it knows it....”