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Originally published May 4, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 4, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Guest columnist

Relations with U.S. at stake as French pick a president

On sunday, the French are poised to elect a new president. At stake is not only the future of France but of the strained French-American...

History News Service

On Sunday, the French are poised to elect a new president. At stake is not only the future of France but of the strained French-American relationship. The frontrunner, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, proudly proclaims the United States "the greatest ... power in the world." His opponent, Socialist Segol Royal, counters that the French "will not go down on our knees before George Bush."

At first blush, their disagreement seems rooted in current events — the Iraq war and the growing economic rivalry between the United States and Europe. But in reality it continues a two-centuries-old debate in France over the Franco-American relationship.

Royal's anti-American argument dates back as far as 1776, when Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris to lobby for French support of the American Revolution. Many French officials at the time wanted nothing to do with 13 rebellious colonies across the Atlantic. Interfering in a foreign war, they reasoned, would bring only trouble and might jeopardize the French position in Europe — an obvious parallel to the French position on Iraq today.

France eventually entered the war anyway, but relations between the two countries remained rocky. American leaders didn't endear themselves to the French when they nearly declared war on France in 1798 and again during the War of 1812. The French, for their part, seriously considered joining the American Civil War — on the Confederate side.

If historical bad blood between France and America bolsters Royal's position, there's history on Sarkozy's side too. Nearly a hundred years ago, amid the rising tide of war in Europe, the French politician Gabriel Hanotaux looked to the United States as a potential ally for France.

An almost forgotten figure today, Hanotaux was a prominent conservative who would have been a kindred spirit to Sarkozy. In 1909, Hanotaux founded a France-America Society in Paris and New York. According to the organization's charter, its mission was "to do everything possible to strengthen the bonds between the United States of America and the Republic of France."

The society's members did in fact do everything in their power to draw the United States into World War I on France's side. When the United States finally did enter the war in 1917 with an outpouring of support for France, French propaganda was at least partly responsible.

If history agrees with both Royal and Sarkozy, which vision of the Franco-American relationship will French voters choose? Historically, France has been the most friendly to the United States when French security was threatened, particularly during both world wars. But French anti-Americanism was at its shrillest immediately after these wars, as France struggled to regain its footing in a changing world.

After World War I, American politicians wanted France to forgive German war debts, while at the same time insisting that the French repay their own debts to American financiers. The resulting financial squeeze was felt in France by people from all walks of life. The irate French wondered whether the price of American aid had been too high. Turning away from the brand of pro-U.S. diplomacy that Sarkozy advocates today, French leaders began to promote a muscular foreign policy that would force Americans to accept France on its own terms — a sentiment Royal would wholeheartedly agree with.

In the aftermath of World War II, French anti-Americanism gained its most famous proponent in Gen. Charles de Gaulle, a hero of the wartime resistance movement. As president of France during the 1950s and 1960s, de Gaulle utterly rejected Sarkozy-style friendship with the United States, opting instead for a hard line against American interventionism similar to Royal's position today. De Gaulle pulled French troops out of NATO and refused to help the United States in Vietnam — actions strikingly similar to France's opposition to the war in Iraq 40 years later.

The debate between Sarkozy and Royal over the United States is merely a modern incarnation of an age-old argument. But this time, the world may not be able to wait much longer for the French and the Americans to make up their minds about each other. Too often, France and the United States seem like two people playing chess on a football field, posturing genteelly while the real issues — terrorism, climate change and human rights — rush at them like a wall of angry linebackers.

In times of war, the Americans and the French have always been able to work together, whether they liked each other or not. Let's hope that no matter who wins the coming French election, the two countries learn to band together in peacetime to confront the global challenges ahead.

Jeremy Cameron Young is a writer for the History News Service. Readers may send e-mail at jcyoung84@gmail.com

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