Earlier this month, a favored magazine of France's left-wing intellectuals came out with a cover that showed a jubilant Mickey Mouse flying over the Eiffel Tower. "American Cultural Invasion," shouted the headline. "Is This Mouse Dangerous?"
Appearing as it did just a few weeks after France was selected as the site for Europe's first Disneyland theme park, a cover story devoted to the cultural threat from across the Atlantic was scarcely surprising. There is, after all, a long tradition of anti-Americanism in France, particularly on the political left.
What was perhaps surprising, in the light of France's preoccupation with preserving its distinctive cultural identity, was Le Nouvel Observateur's conclusions. After feeling the country's intellectual pulse through interviews with politicians and cultural trend-setters, it ended up by granting Mickey Mouse a formal seal of approval and castigating anti-Americanism as "socialism for imbeciles."
The enthusiastic welcome given here to Mickey, Donald Duck, Bambi, the seven dwarfs and all the other Walt Disney creations that will take up residence on 37,000 acres of farmland outside Paris signals the transformation in French attitudes toward America. The changes have been particularly evident since the election in 1981 of a left-wing government with a pronounced distaste for American "cultural imperialism."
As Le Nouvel Observateur commented: "In 1981, the Socialists were sworn to sink their teeth into the America of Ronald Reagan, Zorro and Walt Disney. They have ended up by mixing Coca-Cola with their wine."
A few years ago, it was intellectually fashionable in France to be anti-American. The transatlantic cultural threat was the easiest of political targets. Today the opposite is true. Americanophobes still exist in France -- but they are definitely a dwindling species.
Consider the following batch of conversions:
*In September 1981, French Culture Minister Jack Lang ostentatiously boycotted the annual festival of American films at Deauville. The following year, at a United Nations conference in Mexico City, he appealed to Third World countries to join France in a crusade against "the empire of profit." He now goes out of his way to praise the United States and bestow honors on the leading lights of Hollywood.
*Appointed head of the state-run television channel FR3 in 1981, Socialist film maker Serge Moati said that French television must not become the "audiovisual wastebasket for the United States." Nowadays, he praises "Dynasty" and has won acclaim for launching a two-hour "Disney channel" that operates every Saturday.
*At a symposium at the Sorbonne in early 1983, French intellectuals attacked the television series "Dallas" as a prime example of American cultural imperialism. Asked to take sides in the great Disneyland debate, most of them waxed lyrical about the considerable economic benefits that the $1 billion investment was likely to bring France.
The importance attached by the Socialist government to the Euro-Disneyland contract -- won by France against tough competition from Spain -- was reflected in the fact that it was signed and partly negotiated by Prime Minister Laurent Fabius. The site, which will include hotels, convention facilities, golf courses and shopping centers as well as a "Magic Kingdom" theme park, is expected to attract 10 million visitors anually.
The French enthusiasm for Walt Disney stems in part from economic difficulties. With 12 percent of the work force unemployed, the government cannot afford to turn up its nose at the prospect of 25,000 new jobs. The fact that millions of new jobs have been created in the United States at a time of growing unemployment in Western Europe has encouraged the French to examine America with fresh eyes.
But French attitudes toward the United States also reflect a more important, generational change. Young people travel abroad much more than their parents did, particularly to America. And they have few of their parents' illusions about the Soviet Union, whose image has deteriorated sharply here as a result of the revelations about Stalinist prison camps and the persecution of dissidents.
Over the last decade, American movies have become more and more popular in France -- leaping from 27 percent to 37 percent of total box office returns. France is now the third largest export market for the U.S. film industry, after Canada and Japan. Hollywood products like "Rambo," "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and "Beverly Hills Cop" were all smash hits here.
"If America has succeeded in invading us culturally, it is because we like it," noted actor-singer Yves Montand, a former Communist sympathizer turned admirer of Ronald Reagan. "T-shirts, jeans, hamburgers -- nobody imposes these things on us. We like them."
There have, of course, been dissenting voices. Anti-American sentiment is still to be found on the extreme right and the extreme left of the political spectrum. When the Disneyland contract was announced, Communist spokesmen joined unreconstructed Gaullists in deploring the encroachment of an "alien civilization" to a site so close to the "city of enlightenment."
Communist-controlled trade unions have reacted angrily to attempts by Walt Disney Productions to introduce U.S.-style labor contracts, with more flexible hours and fewer guarantees against dismissal than would normally be the case in France. Ecologists have complained about the rape of the countryside.
Accusing the government of selling France's "soul" for a handful of jobs, a writer in the right-wing daily Le Quotidien de Paris said the "spiritual balance of payments" between the old world and the new was seriously out of whack.
"In ever increasing numbers, the new generations are singing, eating, dressing and thinking in English. They consider that fast food and Coca-Cola is an integral part of our cultural heritage. To the extent that we are incapable of exporting our films, our books, our fashions, our way of life, we have been reduced to the level of simple consumers, intoxicated with American culture," wrote Dominique Jamet.
A more mainstream view, however, was expressed by the former president of the European Parliament, Simone Veil, who insisted that the best defense against an American cultural invasion was to fight against provincialism. "Culture is universal or it is nothing at all," she wrote.
Given the speed with which fashions change in France, it is of course conceivable that the present wave of Americanophilia could quickly recede. If the U.S. economy falters, or Americans lose confidence, there could well be a swing back to the old mistrust of Yankee cultural imperialism.
In the meantime, Walt Disney Productions is taking no chances. In an apparent attempt to soothe French sensibilities, a company spokesman was quoted in the French press as explaining that Disney was of French descent. The family's original name, the French are being told, was not Disney at all but D'Isigny.