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Published on Sunday, April 9, 2000 in the Seattle Times
In Europe's Eyes, Americans Become Uglier And Uglier
by Suzanne Daley
 
PARIS - Read the title of his new book and you'll get an idea of Noel Mamere's perspective: "No Thanks, Uncle Sam."

Mamere, an outspoken though hardly extreme member of the French Parliament, has devoted an entire book to his argument that America is a worrisome society. It has a record number of armed citizens. It embraces the death penalty, turns the poor away when they need medical care, and has failed to approve a nuclear-test ban. Yet, Mamere argues, the United States throws its weight around and would have the entire world follow in its steps.

At this moment, he says in his closing chapter, "it is appropriate to be downright anti-American."

In France, indeed in Europe, Mamere by no means is alone in his criticism. Wander into a French bookstore these days, and you will find any number of catchy titles ("The World Is Not Merchandise," "Who Is Killing France? The American Strategy," "American Totalitarianism" to name a few) deploring the American way - from its creation of a society ruled by profit motive to how the United States is now an unchecked force on its way to ruling the world.

The books are only one sign of what experts say is a growing backlash of anti-Americanism. Europeans more and more talk about America as a menacing, even dangerous force intent on remaking the world in its image. And, like Mamere, many members of Europe's political, cultural and intellectual elite are using a kind of moral calculator to deplore the American model as severely wanting.

Poking fun at America always has been a European pastime, particularly among the French. In the past, Americans have been ridiculed as Bermuda-shorts-wearing louts who call strangers by their first names and know nothing about the good life. But today's criticism is far from being an amusing rejection of food rituals.

"With the fall of the Berlin Wall, America was left as the only superpower," said Stephane Rozes, director general of CSA Opinion, which conducts surveys for news organizations. "And there is a great deal of fear out there that the strength of America's economy will impose not only economic changes, but social changes as well. What they see is an America that has the ability to impose its values, and they are not values that the Europeans believe in."

Europeans read menace in a wide range of recent events. Far from seeing U.S. involvement in Kosovo as a hand of support, for example, many Europeans saw it as U.S. manipulation of NATO. And the humiliating fact that the intervention would not have been possible without U.S. air power rammed home the perception of U.S. military superiority, and European deficiency.

But suspicion runs high in other areas as well. The Clinton administration's cheerleading - for example, its repeated description of the United States as being the "indispensable" nation - strikes a threatening chord here. And disputes such as America's decision last year to impose an import tax on such goods as Roquefort cheese and foie gras because Europeans would not accept hormone-enhanced beef from the United States only fuels the European sense that the United States is a bully.

In Europe, the World Trade Organization - which sanctioned the U.S. action - is dismissed as a tool of U.S. interests.

The idea that the United States is using its vast satellite and spy networks for industrial espionage is readily accepted, as recent debate in the European Union on the Echelon electronic surveillance system showed. Washington denied the charges, but the European bloc is mulling an investigation.

Even the recent debacle over picking a new managing director for the International Monetary Fund fueled the sense that the United States can do whatever it wants. In Washington, officials let it be known that they were opposing the first German candidate because, they said, no one in Europe wanted to do the dirty work of pointing out his inadequacies. That version of events did not get much press here. In Germany, U.S. veto power provoked snide remarks.

To be sure, the average European is embracing much of what is American. Its films, its music, its fashion and, even if no one in France particularly cares to admit it, its fast food.

But the view of a belligerent United States is growing, too. Polls conducted by CSA in the past few years suggest that Europeans have extremely negative views of the United States. In April last year, 68 percent of the French said they worried about America's status as a superpower. Only 30 percent said there was anything to admire across the Atlantic. Sixty-three percent said they did not feel close to the American people.

Another CSA poll in September 1998, which compared attitudes of the Germans, Spanish, French, Italian and British toward the United States, found they had deep reservations, too. Italians seemed to appreciate America the most. But they still showed profound concern about the American model. Between 57 and 60 percent said America's democracy and economy were worth admiring. But 56 to 62 percent said Italians should not look to America for inspiration on their way of life or their culture.

"We have the impression that America has no more enemy," said Michel Winock, a professor at the Institute d'Etudes Politiques de Paris who often writes on the subject of anti-Americanism. "It does what it likes now when it wants. Through NATO, it directs European affairs. Before we could say we were on America's side. Not now. There is no counterbalance."

On some social issues, the United States and Europe do seem to be going in opposite directions. One that receives a lot of attention is the death penalty, abolished or suspended by all members of the European Union but legal in 38 states. Executions often are followed carefully by Europeans as examples of barbarism, and U.S. diplomats say they are bombarded with questions about them. The fact that many executions have taken place in Texas also colors - negatively - commentators' views of Gov. George W. Bush.

Other aspects of America are deplored, too. Essayists have a field day with descriptions of the homeless on the streets, women in jail forced to give birth in handcuffs, drugs, police violence, racism and what they see as a puritanism that invades people's private lives, the prime example being the reaction to the Monica Lewinsky affair.

"Never has America been so loved and so hated," said novelist Pascal Bruckner. "But in some ways America should be glad. We are not condemning the Russians for a lack of morality. We don't care. They don't count."

Felix Rohatyn says he has felt the change of attitude take place since 1997, when he came to Paris as the U.S. ambassador to France.

"The anti-Americanism today encompasses not a specific policy like Iranian sanctions but a feeling that globalization has an American face on it and is a danger to the European and French view of society," Rohatyn said in an interview. "There is the sense that America is such an extraordinary power that it can crush everything in its way. It is more frustration and anxiety now than plain anti-Americanism."

Rohatyn says it is hard to measure consequences of this attitude. "It impacts most things," he said. "Not that it makes transactions impossible, but it certainly puts a different slant on them. It totally negates the notion that our interest is also in their interest."

Such an attitude, for instance, fed a recent frenzy of concern in France over the amount of U.S. investment here. Newspapers suggested that American pension-fund investments in French firms were promoting layoffs of French workers to benefit American retirees.

"Well, that's just not the case," Rohatyn said. "That is not the way things work, but it is a perfect example of that anti-American view at work."

Some Americans believe that part of the problem is that globalization has meant an increase in Americans doing business abroad with methods that do not sit well with Europeans. These Americans value short discussion and quick decisions. Europeans tend to take longer and look for consensus.

But the French, and other Europeans, often mention Americans' lack of knowledge about anything European and their unwillingness to learn as a major aggravation.

Bruckner described how when he was living in San Diego his landlady asked him about his queen, even though France has not had one since the 19th century. Mamere begins his book with a story about how Steve Forbes, at a recent Davos meeting, invoked the image of a Charlemagne who unified Europe two centuries ago. Charlemagne died more than 1,000 years ago and usually is billed as a conqueror, not a unifier.

"Omnipotence and ignorance," Mamere concludes about America. "It is a questionable cocktail."

Mamere's book, written with Olivier Warin, has not been published in America, nor does he expect it to be. "It would be great if they read some of what we write, but they do not," he said. "The Americans are so sure of themselves. They think they are the best in the world, that they are way ahead of everyone and everyone needs to learn from them."

Copyright 2000 The Seattle Times Company

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