In his decades as a journalist, foreign correspondent Richard Z. Chesnoff has reported from around the globe, including the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe. Over the years, Chesnoff — a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report, columnist for the New York Daily News and author of several acclaimed books, including “Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews” (Anchor, 2001) — has chronicled such historic events as the birth of the PLO, the Vietnam peace talks, the 1967 Six-Day War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and, more recently, the rising tide of Islamic terrorism.
Splitting his time between New York City and a tiny medieval farming village in southern France, the Jewish Chesnoff has turned his incisive eye to the complex U.S.-French relationship. In his latest tome, “The Arrogance of the French: Why They Can’t Stand Us & Why the Feeling Is Mutual” (Sentinel HC, $23.95) he takes aim at French arrogance, political opportunism and anti-Semitism. Chesnoff recently spoke with Journal Senior Writer Marc Ballon.
Jewish Journal: The French view Americans as uncultured, money-grubbing slobs intent on remolding the world in their own ugly image. Americans see the French as aloof, chain-smoking arrogant cowards whose pretensions are equaled only by their cultural and political decline. Who’s right?
Richard Chesnoff: Naturally, we are. Not that we don’t have our share of ugly Americans. But the fact is that for all their disdain of America and its culture, the French have readily turned to the United States to regain and sustain their very existence as an independent nation.
As far as current cultural influences — we are it, certainly on a pop level. They still adore Hollywood, copy our music and styles and arguably drink as much Coca-Cola these days as they do red wine. They have contributed nothing major to global art or music or literature for decades. They have no global political power and a shabby armed forces.
They are furious that we are now what they think they once were, and refuse to openly admit they can no longer even aspire to be. It’s why they reject our values and leadership.
JJ: Why can’t we stand the French? Why can’t the French stand us?
RC: The prime three driving factors in French attitudes to America are envy, jealousy and bitterness. They suffer from a national inferiority complex, which they mask with a superiority complex. What annoys them most is our success and their failure.
The French economy, with its double-digit unemployment, is in the doldrums. France, with its 1,000-year history and “superior culture” is nowhere near the power it once was and pretends it still is. We — this pipsqueak cowboy nation of less than 250 years of age — are now the prime power in the world — economically as well as politically and culturally.
As a result, we see them as unfortunately they often are: arrogant, snooty, impolite and disdainful of the nation that saved their derriere twice in less than a century. Without us, they’d be speaking German.
Stereotypes are always somewhat inaccurate. But without them, we wouldn’t have any social sciences. The unfortunate fact is that the French are educated to consider themselves culturally superior to the rest of the world and not to see their shortcomings.
JJ: Have U.S.-French relations always been so strained? Is it a simple case of jealousy or something else?
RC: There have always been ups and downs — largely because we’ve failed to play the role the French initially saw for us. No doubt, French military aid to the American revolutionaries was decisive in securing our independence.
But let’s not fool ourselves. King Louis and his coterie of powder-wigged dandies were hardly enthusiasts of revolution. Rather, they saw a Yankee victory against the British as a means of reasserting French influence in North America and of tweaking King George III’s bright red nose. The combo was too great a temptation for any Frenchman to resist.
Then as now, they were interested in their own interests. That became clear to Ben Franklin during the 1783 Anglo-American peace negotiations that Paris hosted. The American delegation discovered that for all their glad-handedness, the French were ignoring vital American interests and double dealing us. To the outrage of France, the Americans began dealing directly with the British.
When a new war broke out between Republican France and England in 1793, a somewhat wiser America refused to join in on its old ally’s side. The French were furious.
To smooth things over, President John Adams sent a special mission to Paris in 1797. Things went from bad to worse when the French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, gauchely demanded a bribe to make things right.
Adams blew his top and exposed the affair, helping to trigger a two-year Franco-American quasi-war at sea. Thus ended young America’s first “entangling” alliance with France.
It’s been downhill and occasionally uphill ever since. And as we’ve grown stronger and they’ve grown weaker, their animosity toward us has increased. Franklin Roosevelt considered Charles de Gaulle a “real son-of-a-bitch” and untrustworthy to boot. That’s been the general tone since World War II.
JJ: Has France exhibited more or less anti-Semitism than its European neighbors? Please elaborate.
RC: There is a constant level of anti-Semitism in Europe — on the surface or lurking beneath. You can’t escape the effects of centuries of organized demonization of the Jews by church and state. To my mind, it explains why so many Europeans were so readily passive about Nazi persecution of the Jews and certainly why so many readily participated in it.
The French have especially excelled in this area. They are culturally xenophobic — and who is more classically foreign than Jews?
In 19th- and into 20th-century France, anti-Semitism became a powerful political reality — part of the cultural mainstream. Remember the Dreyfus Affair.
In fact, part of their dislike of America was the French perception even back in the 19th century that Jews controlled America — we weren’t Uncle Sam, we were “Oncle Shylock.” When France surrendered to the Germans in 1940, they were so eager to enact anti-Semitic laws that they did so before the Nazis even asked them. Almost all the 75,000 Jews shipped to Auschwitz from France were arrested by French gendarmes, not the Gestapo.
After World War II, blatant anti-Semitism was considered politically incorrect. But in recent years, it has been replaced by a virulent hatred of Israel that has been fostered in part by France’s hypocritical love affair with the Palestinians and the likes of Saddam Hussein. It’s only a short jump from that to anti-Semitic acts — many of which are the work of France’s increasingly marginalized Islamic population.
JJ: You’ve lived in France off and on for decades. Have you personally experienced any anti-Semitism? Please describe.
RC: I’ve been called a “sale juif” (a dirty Jew) a few times. But in my case, it’s mostly evident in attitudes, in nuance, in the occasional crack about how Jews are so clever in business, how we wield far too much power, how Israel has developed into a fascist, if not neo-Nazi state. If I were an Orthodox Jew wearing a kippah and living in a Paris suburb, I’d probably encounter more violent anti-Semitism.
JJ: Why has France coddled Hezbollah, the PLO and other terrorist groups? Has the country made a Faustian bargain that allows them to operate in France so long as they don’t launch domestic attacks? Has this policy succeeded? If not, why hasn’t France recalibrated its thinking?
RC: They did make devil deals with terrorists — “we’ll turn our attention away if you leave us alone. Blow up buildings elsewhere, but not in France.” They also allowed some of the worst of all terrorists to pass through France and nixed American efforts to have them arrested — including the Hezbollah leader who was behind bombings in Beirut that killed French troops, as well as Americans.
This head-in-the-sand policy didn’t always work. They’ve had their share of subway bombings. They’ve re-thought policies somewhat.
Their own internal security systems are among the toughest in the world, and they are now sharing more information with other intelligence services. That said, I’m convinced that somewhere in the French secret service there’s bound to be those still making unilateral deals.
JJ: In your book, you partly attribute France’s national arrogance to the prominence in their education system of Rene Descartes’ philosophy.
RC: Well, it’s their somewhat perverse interpretation of Descartes’ ideas, specifically of Cartesian logic; it’s not “I think, therefore I am” — it’s “I think, therefore I’m right!” If a Frenchman or woman ever says to you “mais c’ést logique,” you know you’re in trouble.
I’ll give you an example: I once crossed a street in a nearby town in order to enter a grocery store. There was a bicycle precariously perched outside. As I neared the door, the shop owner, who was adjusting his awning, inadvertently touched the bike, knocking it down and straight onto my leg.
I wasn’t injured, but it was very painful. As I rubbed my leg, the shopkeeper said nothing.
“At least,” I offered, “you could say, ‘I’m sorry.'”
“Why should I?” he asked with a quizzical look. “It’s not my bicycle.”
JJ: France carved out a strong anti-American position in the United Nations over America’s efforts to garner support to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The French cloaked their position solely in moral terms. Was something more at work?
RC: Of course, French economic interests and France’s self-centered political goals. The French shared an economic bed with Saddam Hussein and his gang — supplying billions in weapons, material and know-how in exchange for enormously lucrative contracts, oil and under-the-table contributions to political coffers — Socialist under Francois Mitterand, Centrist under Jacques Chirac. Just look at their shabby record in the oil-for-food deals.
JJ: France has inveighed against the United States for its so-called “unilateralism.” Hasn’t France adopted a go-it-alone strategy in Africa with disastrous results?
RC: Yes. They may attack us for unilateralism — but if France thinks some of its neo-colonial interests in Africa are threatened, for example, they ship in French troops uninvited by the local government. Their support for African dictators has been shameful.
JJ: Are Americans alone in their antipathy for the French? If I recall correctly, didn’t French President Jacques Chirac chastise Eastern Europeans for supporting the U.S. position on Iraq at the United Nation?
RC: The French are never going to win any pan-European popularity contests. At the risk of a terrible generalization, I’d say most other Europeans look upon them much as we do: arrogant and frequently offensive. The French, for their part, are worried about a European Union they can’t control — thus their recent rejection of the European Constitution.
JJ: The French, in recent decades, have staked out a position as a counterbalance to U.S. hegemony, despite sharing democratic and liberal values with America, not to mention membership in NATO. Does France really worry about U.S. power or is it simply trying to enhance its image and expand its influence at America’s expense?
RC: France frets about American superpower, because it cuts them out of action to which they are not entitled but insist they are. No doubt, France deserves a place at the global table — but France wants to sit at the head of the table. They have no economic, political or military right to do that. Their shameful behavior regarding Iraq and other global matters underscores all of this.
JJ: In your opinion, would the world be a safer place if France, rather than the United States, was the sole superpower?
RC: Absolutely not. The United States is already the sole superpower. China may eventually join us — but at present, there is no one else. The French have given no evidence that even if they possessed the stuff that makes for superpowerism, they’d provide better leadership than we do. As I recall, they’ve never liberated anyone.
JJ: About 10 percent of France’s population is now Muslim, with many hailing from former colonies such as Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Why has the country had such a difficult time digesting these relative newcomers compared to past waves of immigrants? How do most French feel about the rapid growth of the Muslim population within their midst?
RC: France is not a multicultural nation. The French believe that their culture is ultimately the only culture, certainly for France.
They thought that the Islamic labor force they imported from North Africa would ultimately return to North Africa. It hasn’t, and the French have not
accepted them culturally, economically or socially.
They are an increasingly marginalized and angry society of almost 6 million people with the country’s highest birthrate. The French unwillingness to truly absorb its Islamic population as French has resulted in the Islamic community turning increasingly inward.
JJ: If you have so many issues with the French, why do you live there?
RC: It’s a personal choice after many years of living here. No matter how annoying the French are, I adore the French countryside; I pick and choose and enjoy the best of classic French life — history, art, cuisine. In part, I suppose, I stay to spite them. Let’s say it’s my Yankee revenge!