College of LAS « Illinois

French

Religious Differences Contribute to French-American Rift

After France helped block the United Nations from approving the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, angry politicians and commentators derided France as part of "Old Europe," renamed French fries to "freedom fries," and called for a boycott on French exports. Now an LAS researcher says the rift was a predictable outcome of a growing transatlantic gulf in worldview.

When France and the United States were working together to fight Soviet communism, officials in both countries emphasized our similarities, including our common democratic political culture and our shared European heritage, says Jean-Phillippe Mathy, a French professor who has written extensively on French-American relations. But "now other differences are emerging, and those anthropological differences are partly rooted in religion."

America is a religious nation, which leads many Americans to view politics in moral terms, Mathy says. But French people are much more secular, and they expect the same from their political leaders. "You can be Christian, but that should not appear in public speeches and in public discourse."

Those convictions led French critics to deride President George W. Bush for starting a "crusade" when he publicly displayed his religion, spurned the United Nations, and spoke in moral terms to justify invading Iraq. And most French were baffled when a majority of Americans supported the Iraq war, says Mathy. After being battered by two world wars, Mathy concludes, most French, like most Europeans, believe that the way through conflict is to "sit at a table and talk."

October 2003