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The French Difference’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

Beyond its author, the real target of Tony Judt’s review of Hubert Védrine’s Les Cartes de la France [NYR, April 12] is France’s role in the world and, as a result, France herself. Foreign policy is both a discourse on and a practice of international affairs: because Judt’s interpretation of the former is often disputable and because his account of the latter is hardly accurate, I would like to make the following remarks.

Discourse and practice, as scholars and practitioners know, do not often coincide when it comes to foreign policy. In the case of France, the gap is admittedly especially large: for the French, national identity, over two centuries, has been seen as a function of international influence, hence a quest for grandeur which has long been part of the national neurosis, thus leading at times to distortions between the rhetoric and the reality. While this historical complex may be a thing of the past (on this more below), it has not yet entirely disappeared from official discourse. And the challenge of globalization—the book’s central theme—in a way revives it; but for diplomacy just like for economics, modernization moves on in spite of traditional rhetoric.

The book is a case in point. While it is in some ways an exercise in the defense and illustration of “Gaullism” (or what remains thereof), it is also and more interestingly an attempt at formulating an aggiornamento. Here, Védrine may be seen as having fallen into his own trap, for example, when his use of the word “hyperpower” to describe today’s unprecedented US influence backfired into making him a classical anti-American: for in fact (as Judt no doubt understands), unlike De Gaulle a few decades ago, it was precisely about recognizing the indisputable reality of American predominance (in French, the prefix “hyper” is purely descriptive, as in “hypermarché,” meaning a very large department store). In spite of some unfortunate echoes of old thinking, Védrine’s point is that the times of searching for the “rank” have passed and that there is need for new approaches.

Judt further caricatures French diplomacy as being historically and irremediably marked by cynicism. Here also, Védrine (with his Kissingerian accents and his longtime association with François Mitterrand, a master in Machiavellian politics) is an easy target. Yet the accusation is biased: while the realist tradition (just like for all European diplomacies) looms large in France’s international politics, the idealist inspiration has never been absent: from the French Revolution to the “Springtime of peoples” and, more recently, from European integration to humanitarian intervention, it has remained a strong factor (can Jean Monnet be described as a diehard realist or Bernard Kouchner as a cynic?). Here again, Judt doesn’t do justice to the book or to the reality: the former is a dialogue between the “realist” Védrine and the “idealist” Moisi, and its reading shows that, in France just like elsewhere, there is debate on such fundamental themes as the role of ethics in international relations.

This leads me to Judt’s description of the record of France’s foreign policies in the past half-century. Here, his method is simple (and somewhat reminiscent of the Stalinist intellectuals of the good old days): after having caricatured the ideas, he caricatures the reality. From there follows a series of journalistic clichés on France in the twentieth century; let me deal with three of them.

First, this is a country which has been brooding over humiliation since—according to how far one chooses to look back—1962 (the end of French Algeria), 1956 (Suez), 1940 (the defeat against Germany), 1870 (idem), etc.: hence her constant need for posturing and grandiloquence. All of this is not wrong: it is just passé. While these events have indeed shaped the national ethos and therefore the country’s role in the world, they also have been overcome as traumas long ago, and De Gaulle played a decisive role in bringing about that result; take the Atlantic alliance for example: while the Fourth Republic was a frustrated and, accordingly, a weak ally, De Gaulle’s restoration of French international self-confidence (thanks in particular to nuclear weapons) made it a reliable partner again.

Second, France has enjoyed an artificially favorable position in the international system by profiting from the advantages of the cold war (including Germany’s division and America’s protection) while escaping its constraints by denouncing the system of blocs and indulging in “third way” tendencies. Again there is truth in this description (politics, after all, is about making virtue of necessity), and Védrine himself has perceptively described France as having benefited from a cold war niche which provided her with both security and status. But again, this is only one part of the story: all along, France has remained a faithful Western ally, a strong promoter of European integration, and a significant factor in bringing about East–West détente—with a view to overcoming the logic of blocs, which eventually took place.

Hence a third cliché, which has become the tarte à la crème in a certain literature on the subject: France did all it could to prevent the end of this blessed era, most of all, Judt argues, by opposing German unification. This would fit well indeed in this overall picture of a France ever against the tide of history; except that it is simply wrong: while it is true that the French were—just like all others, including the Germans, including the Americans—taken by surprise by the events of the fall of 1989, the evidence available to historians simply invalidates this reading of France’s role at cold war’s end: Mitterrand, in that sense, was not Thatcher (at Kiev in December 1989, it was rather Gorbachev that tried to enroll him in a policy of opposing German unity). Even though his attempt at keeping events under control for the sake of international stability is undeniable, it is simply inaccurate to equate this with a pure and simple policy of blocking German unification and thwarting the demise of Yalta. In fact, he used these events to promote his own goals—that of European unity to begin with.

Judt’s description of France’s entry into the twenty-first century is flabbergasting. When I read his and some of his fellow journalists’ stereotyped view of a country entering “globalization” backwards, humiliated by the looming American dominance and terrified by the emergence of a new giant—Germany—at its doorstep, I simply wonder if I live in that country. By all accounts, France, in spite of the aforementioned discourse, is doing just as well as most of her European neighbors in adapting to globalization, whether in terms of economic reform, social adaptation, or cultural transformation (all these achievements have been celebrated by the American media in the past three years or so, arguably just as excessively as the very same media had castigated the previous phase of relative stagnation in the mid-1990s). As to the fear of American dominance, it might still loom large among some intellectuals or bureaucrats who have not yet overcome their past, but it is hardly an obsession for the larger part of the public and for most of France’s increasingly internationalized elite; to the extent the French disapprove of the United States in some respects, they no longer do so by systematically being anti-American, but rather on issues (the death penalty, environmental policies, etc.), by which they do not significantly distinguish themselves from other Europeans. Finally, Germany: contrary to the expectations of the Thatcherites of some twelve years ago, Germany has not become the dominant power in Europe; by most standards—including economically—the power relation between the two countries is not essentially different today from what it was just before German unification (a 1:1.3 ratio in terms of GDP does not make Germany a giant and France a dwarf), and the portrait of a France anxious to prevent Germany from becoming again a major economic and political power is simply fanciful: Germany had been both since well before the end of the cold war.

France-bashing, it seems, is alive and well among a certain British-American elite. This is, to a large extent, a legacy of a long history: one of French-American competition over ideals and Franco-British rivalry for power. It is also, one should recognize, a self-inflicted wound on the part of the French, still too often prone to entertain a certain discourse which their partners inevitably interpret as the sign that things don’t change with the grande nation. But in the face of the reality of France’s ongoing modernization and adaptation, including in foreign policy, it is also, and increasingly, a reflection of a certain inability on the part of some, in the United States and elsewhere, to do away with old stereotypes.

Frédéric Bozo
Professor, University of Nantes
Senior Associate, French Institute for International Relations
Paris, France

Tony Judt replies:

Frédéric Bozo is much aggrieved. He writes of the “France-bashing” of “a certain British-American elite,” of “journalistic clichés,” of a method “reminiscent of the Stalinist intellectuals.” All of this is rather odd, since in substance we agree. According to Bozo, the “quest for grandeur which has long been part of the [French] national neurosis” finds “unfortunate echoes” in Hubert Védrine’s book. This “historical complex…has not yet entirely disappeared from official discourse.” He acknowledges that there is “truth in [Judt’s] description” of France seeking the best of all worlds during the cold war; and he writes that a fear of American dominance “might still loom large among some intellectuals or bureaucrats who have not yet overcome their past.” I could not have put it better.

Bozo dismisses my assertion that François Mitterrand did not wish to see Germany reunified. (But why should this suggestion give offense? Many men of goodwill had similar reservations, among them Günter Grass.) Bozo claims that “the evidence available to historians simply invalidates this reading of France’s role at cold war’s end.” I doubt that—Mitterrand was never so incautious as to allow an unambiguous reading of his intentions: it is not by chance that his admirers call him “the Florentine.” In any case, the evidence is not available to historians—or at least, not all historians. If Bozo had privileged access to the materials kept at the Institut François Mitterrand and accessible so far only to acolytes and favorites, then he should tell us what he has found there.

Bozo’s other disagreement concerns Germany itself. “Germany,” he writes, “has not become the dominant power in Europe.” He should tell that to Pierre Moscovici. The French minister for Europe recently vented his anger at Mr. Schroeder’s federalist design for the EU, promulgated publicly and without notice just three months after promising French leaders that he would consult them every six weeks on all matters of common concern. And on May 2 the German government followed up with a veto of EU proposals (supported by the rest of the Union) to ease cross-border takeovers. Germany is the preeminent European power today. This may or may not be such a bad thing. But why go on denying it?

There is little in my review of Védrine’s book that has not been said or written by French commentators themselves, including the contention that the present foreign minister can at times sound cynical and condescending. It was Raymond Aron who twenty years ago noted the damaging legacy of the Gaullist illusion that the Russians much cared what France thought or did. In late April Le Monde ran a devastating series of articles on the Quai d’Orsay, depicting much of the French foreign policy establishment as out of touch and insen-sitive. Yves Mény, a highly respected French scholar, enthusiastic Euro-federalist, and incoming director of the European University Institute in Florence, recently contributed a biting critique of France’s failure to find a European role under the heading “Le Train Bruxelles–Berlin ne passe pas par Paris…” (Le Monde, May 10, 2001). And it was not a France-bashing Anglo-Saxon but Christian Blanc, the former head of Paris’s transport system and subsequently president of Air France, who wrote (in Le Monde, April 5, 2001) of the “arrogance” and “self-satisfaction” of the so-called “exception nationale,” and of France’s two principal handicaps: “son administration et sa classe politique.”

My offense, then, lay in voicing similar opinions in English, in The New York Review. And Frédéric Bozo’s irritated response illustrates my diagnosis. A certain Parisian academic and political elite (to paraphrase our correspondent) reacts with pained resentment to even friendly criticism from an American source. My conclusion, after all, was positively Francophilic: it even provoked some English and Central European readers to chastise me for the assertion that France is Europe’s natural heart and soul. I think they are wrong. Like Christian Blanc, I believe that “the French could help Europe find both its unity and its identity.” That is their fate and their chance. But it will be a lot harder to accomplish while the exposition of France’s international image remains in the hands of Bozo and his friends.

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