Since 1991, Gallup has been asking Americans about their views of France. Americans tend to like other Western liberal democracies. But in 2003, after France opposed the Iraq War, only 34 percent of Americans said they held favorable views of France. That's roughly on par with attitudes toward Saudi Arabia or Cuba.
It took more than a decade, but American views of France have now fully rebounded to a very high 78 percent favorable. That's more than double – much more than double – what it was at the bottom. French President Francois Hollande seemed to hint at that trajectory when he joked at Tuesday night's White House state dinner, "We love the United States and you love the French, but you don’t always say so because you are shy."
But have American views of France really substantially changed? I'm not sure.Jokes about the French – a form of ethnic humor that would be a fireable offense if it referenced any other ethnicity but is considered widely acceptable in the United States – long predated 2003 and the "Freedom fries" era.
Even in the 1990s, when Americans reported high favorability ratings for France, a form of Francophobia was still widespread. "The Simpsons" so perfectly captured American views of France with the 1995 coinage "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" that the phrase has stuck for almost 20 years and was included in the Oxford quotation dictionary twice. Even as far back as 1945, the U.S. Army distributed pamphlets to troops about to land in France called "112 Gripes About the French," meant to curb what was assumed to be rife Francophobia.
As I wrote in a 2012 article in The Atlantic – inspired by political commentary that Mitt Romney had erred badly by briefly mentioning that was France was a nice place – American hostility toward France and the French is so deep and so perplexing that it has inspired a miniature field of academic literature attempting to explain it.
Some of the research argues that the things that should draw France and the United States together – shared cultural values, extremely similar political systems, shared military histories in Vietnam and in the world wars – may actually push us apart.
Both the American and the French cultural-political systems are universalist, which means that we both take as basic premises that our systems are so ideal that everyone else should adopt them. And both countries have national narratives of discovering and championing these democratic ideals. But we can't both be first, and we can't both be best. The French and the American national narratives are inherently exclusive, which may feed into the very mutual feelings of resentment and disdain. This idea is called the "thesis of two universalisms," credited to French academics Pierre Bourdieu and Stanley Hoffmann.
Historian Justin Vaïsse, on the other hand, has argued that American anti-French attitudes are so severe in part because there's no strong, unified French-American community. There's little stigma against mocking the French, Vaïsse says, because there are so few people in the United States to be offended.
No one event or dynamic is likely to explain the weirdly persistent antagonisms between two societies that share so much in common. I've always wondered at the significance of France's post-World War II struggle to reconcile its history as a great power with its present status as something much humbler. France spent 200-plus years as one of several world powers, an obvious peer of the British and Ottoman empires, and for several glorious Napoleonic years perhaps the most powerful nation on earth.
World War II and the subsequent end of European colonialism didn't just humiliate France and erode its power. These events reshaped the world in ways that forced France into a second-tier status from which it might never climb back out. The Cold War divided the globe into East and West, the latter half dominated by Britain and the United States. France saw the United States and Britain as two sides of the same Anglophone coin; for them, the Western alliance was not an equal partnership of Western powers but a form of Anglophone domination. France felt it has been stripped of its great power status.
This led France to design a foreign policy, in the 1950s through early '70s, that deliberately pushed away other Western nations, most especially the United States. In 1966, it withdrew from NATO command and kicked out the NATO headquarters based in Paris, creating a crisis in the Western alliance at a time of high Cold War tensions. It helped Israel develop a rogue nuclear program, despite U.S. demands to the contrary. French President Charles de Gaulle even called the French nuclear program "defense in all directions" and put his warheads on constant rotation around the country, not-so-subtly suggesting that he would be prepared to use them in "defense" against other Western countries.
And on and on. If France couldn't reclaim its former status, it could at least make clear, to itself and the world, that it was not a subservient, secondary player to the U.S.- and British-led Western order. It might not be a great power anymore, but it was still its own power.
Of course, Americans are probably not laughing at anti-French Simpsons jokes because they resent de Gaulle-era French nuclear policy. But those 20-some years of very real Franco-American tensions, of France's assertive efforts to set itself off from the American-dominated Western order, may have helped sink in the idea that France really does stand apart. Maybe just not in the way that people like de Gaulle wanted us to see it. That perception could last.