October 8, 2003: A moment with...

Sophie Meunier

Photo by Frank Wojciechowski

This semester, Sophie Meunier, a research associate at the Woodrow Wilson School, is teaching a freshman seminar called “Sour Fries: The Franco-American Relationship,” which explores why the U.S. and France have had such trouble getting along – starting long before their differences over the war in Iraq. Meunier, who is French, planned the course after some Americans began pouring out their French wine and calling their potatoes “freedom fries.” The author of The French Challenge: Adapting to Globalization (2001), she spoke to Ginny Parker ’96 for PAW.

Why did you name your seminar “Sour Fries?”

I like funny titles! We’re going to try to understand the paradoxical relationship between France and the United States. These are two countries that have never been to war with each other, and share many things. They share values, they share culture, they have a very balanced trade relationship. So in many aspects you would imagine they would get along well. But the relationship is not easy at all. The antagonism goes back a long way. The German military defeat of France in 1940 created the cliché of the French as an incompetent and cowardly people. And the Gaullist period gave rise to the belief of an ungrateful and unhelpful country.

What about anti-Americanism in France?

In France anti-Americanism usually is more intellectual than popular, whereas here it’s more at a grassroots, middle-America level. At the time of the American Revolution, there was already a latent anti-Americanism on the part of French elites. At the time it was more contempt than anything else. They saw the Americans as inferior. Then it became pretty strong after the first World War, when the mass culture of America started to emerge in France and Europe in general. There were lots of writings in France in the interwar period about how low the culture of America was. Today, I think, the anti-globalization movement and then the Iraq crisis have galvanized everybody in France.

What role does globalization play in the tension?

This is one of the big areas where they clash. France has taken the lead in the antiglobalization movement for many years, and antiglobalization often is anti-United States. France built itself over the centuries with a very strong central state that’s all-powerful, and that knows better than the individual. Globaliza-tion really challenges that, because it’s the reverse. It’s the power of the individual. The state loses all the control over the levers.

The French have always prided themselves on the strength of their culture. This is a very fundamental, visceral element of French identity. To some extent, France and the U.S. are the only two cultures that have universalist aspirations, that think they can be best for everybody in the whole world. Over time, France tried to export its culture in a very proactive way. I think because the U.S. has this universalist culture and France does too, these two clash inevitably.

Tell me about the sheep farmer who became a national hero by ransacking a McDonald’s. Why did he do it?

Most farmers give hormones to cattle, but the practice was banned in the European Union more than 10 years ago. You could not import American beef treated with hormones. The Americans claimed that this was trade discrimination. They took the E.U. to court and won, in 1999. In exchange, the U.S. could apply retaliatory trade sanctions. The Americans picked all sorts of products that were unrelated: cashmere sweaters, mustard, Louis Vuitton handbags, and Roquefort cheese.

In the region of France where they make Roquefort, there is a guy named José Bové, whose livelihood depends on raising sheep and using the milk to produce Roquefort. He couldn’t sell his stuff anymore. He and the guys in his union thought they should take some sort of action to protest. They thought a good idea would be to take down the McDonald’s that was being built right in the middle of their region. It became a big party. Everybody went with their tractors. It catalyzed everybody in France because the symbol was perfect.

The French don’t like McDonald’s?

McDonald’s this year opened its 1,000th outlet in France. They ran a campaign showing that McDonald’s is French in France: The potatoes come from France; so do the beef, the workers, and the builders. The restaurants have a “more French” design. And McDonald’s in France has burgers topped with goat cheese, and ratatouille. They’ve been extremely successful.

What can the U.S. do to melt the frost with France?

I’m not sure the U.S. is interested in melting this frost. In the end, I’m not even sure it matters. That’s the question: Does France matter anymore for the U.S.? The U.S. wanted to go to war with Iraq — they had their own reasons, they didn’t care what other countries thought, so why even try to mend the relationship? I think that’s probably what hurt France the most, to see that it did not matter.



Current Issue    Online Archives    Printed Issue Archives
Advertising Info    Reader Services    Search    Contact PAW    Your Class Secretary