Archive for Wednesday, March 29, 2006

U.S. less friendly to French

March 29, 2006


As the French have even more problems dealing with the 21st century, it is worth asking exactly why Americans now see the Russians as a better friend than the Parisians.

Borscht isn't going to replace French onion soup on U.S. restaurant menus any time soon, but the French and other European nations should not miss the message in the surprising poll results.

It would seem that the numbers are more than just a reflection of a lingering bitterness in the United States over France's outspoken opposition to the Iraq War, although that is obviously part of the reason.

It is not hard to see this as a growing reassessment of Americans' historical view of much of Europe as the U.S.'s prime partner in a changing world. Much like realizing a high school friend's poor choices will hurt your friendship and limit his future.

After all, another traditional ally that split with Washington over Iraq, Canada, scored much, much better in the poll that asked a super-size sample of voters to rate countries as friends or foes.

Nor would it seem that the warmer Russian showing is just a sigh of relief that Americans no longer need to worry about Moscow's ICBMs, although it would be hard to dismiss that as a contributory reason. It is very possibly recognition that, at least comparatively, the Russians are trying to find their way in the new, economically competitive world, while the French are acting like ostriches.

Although the almost 2,000 registered voters who were surveyed in the Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this month were not asked why they rated those three, and other countries, as they did, some reasons seem obvious, others merely conjecture.

The poll, taken after violent riots in recent months by Muslim youths unable to find work and a place in French society, asked voters to rate a variety of foreign countries on how friendly they are to the United States. It was taken before last week's massive demonstrations across France and calls for a general strike over government efforts to reduce the almost 10 percent jobless rate (23 percent among young adults).

The legal changes, which still give most workers much greater protections than available in the United States, will require relaxing rules that have made businesses wary of new hiring and lend to a stagnant economy.

The survey had an error margin of 2 percent and a sample size roughly twice the typical one. On the scale of 1 (worst enemy) to 100 (best friend) Russia got a mean score of 47 compared to France's 45.

Canada's mean of 71 was second only to England's 76. And yes, England is in Europe, but it has embraced the global economy, not sought to hide from it, as on the Continent, where workers are trying to protect their 35-hour week and resisting the changes needed to make their products competitive. England also has been a U.S. ally in Iraq.

One can argue that the relative closeness of the French and Russian results makes the difference minimal, but that ignores the proverbial man bites dog nature of the story. After all, the French have been among America's dearest friends since they bailed out the colonists in the American Revolution.

And even before the Russians became the communist state whose goal, as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev put it, was to "bury" the United States and its way of life, the two countries were never close. As World War II allies, Americans didn't trust Moscow's motives and those suspicions were proven correct as the almost half-century Cold War divided the globe into two enemy camps.

Perhaps these new numbers about Russia are a bit ironic, given growing irritation in Washington with recent efforts by President Vladimir Putin to centralize political authority, reassert some control over the economy and become a less cooperative U.S. strategic partner.

Nonetheless, Americans clearly see the French in a relatively negative light. Of course, we still like them better than the Chinese (mean score of 42). But not nearly as much as the Indians, whose mean of 52 isn't bad for a country that is taking away American jobs.

The danger for the French is that if the American people start seeing Asia in a more favorable light, then the historic tries between America and the Continent could become even more frayed.

Peter A. Brown is the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and a former editorial columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.


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