With the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, French-US relations reached a low point. The administration of US President George W. Bush felt betrayed by French diplomatic tactics at the UN, while French President Jacques Chirac felt confirmed in his mistrust of the sole superpower and his call for a multipolar world. Today, on the eve of the French presidential elections, opinion polls show that three-quarters of French voters believe that France should distance itself from the US.
Despite a long history of alliance dating back to the American Revolution and including two world wars, France has always had a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the US, and the Iraq War was not the first time that a controversial security policy undercut the US' attractiveness in France. Polls show similar reactions after the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the deployment of intermediate range missiles in Europe in the early 1980s.
In addition, France has long had a strand of anti-US sentiment. Some conservatives disliked the crude egalitarianism of US culture, while some on the left have seen US faith in markets as a symbol of capitalist exploitation of the working class. After World War II, France banned Coca-Cola for a time, and, more recently, the farmer Jos Bov became a folk hero by destroying a McDonald's restaurant. But the French still flock to McDonald's and to theaters playing US movies, despite limits on their import.
While such ambivalence will not change, French-US relations are likely to improve no matter which of the three leading candidates prevails in the final round of voting on May 6, in part owing to Chirac's exit. In fact, French-US relations have already begun to improve, as both sides realized that their pubic dispute was damaging their interests. The exit of some of the most strident neo-conservatives in the Bush administration over the past year has also helped, and with growing opposition to the Iraq War, some US citizens are beginning to think that the French may have had a point after all.
Of the three major candidates, conservative Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has expressed the most pro-US views and traveled to Washington for a photo opportunity with Bush. He told a Washington audience that anti-Americanism was an elite indulgence not shared by the French at large.
"The truth is that the French listen to Madonna, just as they used to love listening to Elvis and Sinatra," Sarkozy said. "And all French parents dream of sending their child to an American university."
Sarkozy said: "The virulence of the press and a portion of French elites against the United States reflects a certain envy of your brilliant success."
In response, an adviser to the socialist candidate Segolene Royal labeled Sarkozy "an American neo-conservative with a French passport."
But while Royal has been careful to placate her socialist base, she has also talked about the need for market reforms in the French economy, and taken some foreign policy positions on Iran and Turkey that are closer to the US view than are Sarkozy's.
The centrist candidate, former education minister Francois Bayrou, has relatives in the US and has called for a "third way" in French politics analogous to the paths forged by former US president Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.