A Great Franco-American Find from 1986

Back in November, when the Yellow Vest movement first sprung up in France, we did a segment on the show based on an old article that Michael from Maryland had dug up. It was a piece in the Washington Post, from 1986, smack dab in the middle of the Reagan years, and also the 100-year Anniversary of France’s gifting Lady Liberty to us, who still stands on Liberty Island, New York, today. Either way, I thought it would be a good thing to have on record as the Yellow Vest movement has since spread around Europe, and only time will tell if it makes it’s way to American shores, too.

I found it an important read, because whereas Americans and the French have long been partners in the quest to secure and maintain Freedom, the idea of Liberty is perceived differently on either side of the Atlantic. So here is some of that article from 1986, and after that is a link containing some historical facts you may or may not have known about another Franco-American Hero: The Marquis De Lafayette.


American Liberty, French Liberte: More Than Just a Language Gap

By Michael Dobbs

Washington Post Correspondent

July 6, 1986

The nation that gave Miss Liberty to America joined in celebrations for her 100th birthday this weekend with an eclectic mix of American-style barbecues, television spectaculars and earnest seminars on the significance of the Atlantic Alliance.

But amid the hoopla and the hype, the kitschy reproductions of the Statue of Liberty and the suddenly upbeat talk about Franco-U.S. friendship, a serious question has been raised by commentators and political thinkers here over the past few days. Have Americans been celebrating the same ideal as the French?

At one level of course, Frederic Bartholdi's statue is a universal symbol of freedom and hope. As President Francois Mitterrand noted in his speech in New York harbor Thursday night, it is a reminder of the most important of the common values that unite western democracies.

On a different level, the festivities have served as a reminder that the word "liberty" has very different connotations on the two sides of the Atlantic. In America, the emphasis is usually placed on "freedom to:" to make a fortune, to build a new life, to create a literary masterpiece or pornographic trash. In France, the word has traditionally meant "freedom from:" from tyranny, from domination by other countries, from disorder or anarchy.

The contrasting interpretations of the word liberty have in turn led to different notions about the proper role of the state. In France, with its history of revolutions and counterrevolutions, the state has traditionally been viewed as a protector against dictatorship and as an agent of economic change. In America, it is often seen as, at best, a necessary evil.

The essential difference between America and Europe, a front-page editorial in the Paris newspaper Le Monde noted, is that Americans voluntarily identified with the ideals of their chosen country, whereas Europeans inherited national traditions handed down to them by history.

"Nobody has ever thought of celebrating a German, French, British, Russian, Chinese, Japanese or Moldavian dream. For the simple reason that in all these cases, you would have difficulty identifying the nation with an ideology. The United States, by contrast, was born as the result of the adhesion of its founding fathers, followed by generations of immigrants, to a common credo based on liberty," wrote Andre Fontaine, Le Monde's editor-in-chief.

Several French commentators remarked that this weekend's festivities had much more to do with America feeling good about itself than a celebration of Franco-U.S. friendship. The relatively minor role accorded to Mitterrand in the Hollywood-style spectacular of Miss Liberty's formal rededication was widely commented upon here.

"In the history of the Statue of Liberty, France committed just one mistake: making it," sniffed Liberation, an independent leftist newspaper. An editorial depicted France as an inconvenient ally for the United States because it had its own ideas about liberty, which it refused to regard as an exclusively American invention.

The love-hate relationship between France and America, according to this analysis, stems from competing claims to the same ideals. Viewed from here, American anger with France is frequently the anger of the jilted lover. The French point out that, although both Paris and Madrid refused overflight rights for the U.S. bombing raid against Libya, American displeasure was directed almost exclusively against France.

As Liberation commented: "By giving France a privileged place in the scale of its emotions, America is effectively granting it a special recognition that satisfies our national pride."

If the French left has underlined the foreignness of the American ideal of liberty, right-wing commentators have used the U.S. model as an argument for domestic political change. The last few years have seen a revolution in conservative thinking here as right-wing philosophers jettison the notion of the all-powerful state in favor of American ideas of free enterprise.

A seminar of French and American right-wing political thinkers to mark the July 4 festivities concluded with a surprising measure of consensus on the need to free the economy from state control. The main difference between the two sides was cultural: the Americans went around wearing the green sponge reproductions of Miss Liberty's crown that had been issued to all participants, while the French showed Gallic reserve.

Also, a nice little collection of Franco-American factoids regarding Marquis De Lafayette: https://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-marquis-de-lafayette

Frankie ValComment