I encountered Jean-Michel Heimonet through a fortunate coincidence: someone drew his attention to my Commentary article, “Betrayed by Europe,” which can be read as a defense and illustration of his article, “Pourquoi je suis devenu américain” [why I became American] published in the French magazine Commentaire. Our initial e-mail exchanges led me to Washington DC, to a cordial meeting at his home on May 12th 2004. Jean-Michel Heimonet, who has lived in the United States since 1980, is a professor at Catholic University and author of several studies on the modern mind.
Nidra Poller: Professor Heimonet, I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to share our interwoven conversation with FrontPage readers and, if I may, I’d like to begin with a personal request: I am in the United States this month for professional reasons, following a very busy schedule, but I was looking forward to a vacation from certain assaults typical of the French press. So you can imagine my disappointment at running straight into this media avalanche set off by the mistreatment of Iraqi POWS. Can you console me?
Jean-Michel Heimonet: And I want to thank you for the pleasure of sharing my thoughts with you.
On this question you just raised, perhaps I am more ambivalent, because I have to admit that I was shocked by the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners. However, I fully agree that the media have exploited this incident, perhaps ignoring the political impact it will have. Watching CNN yesterday [House and Senate Armed Services committee hearings], hearing questions asked by some liberal Democrats, such as Ted Kennedy, I saw that it had quickly turned into a partisan issue. The media are exploiting it without knowing exactly what they are doing. They are making it a campaign issue in the confrontation between the two candidates, Bush and Kerry. Yesterday there was the tragic event of the decapitated American contractor, Nicholas Berg, shown on the web. If the media were responsible they would have run this as the main topic on the front page today. They didn’t. It was in second or third place and the mistreatment of the Iraqi prisoners was again the top story.
NP: And I have already received messages from some of my correspondents in France, distressed about the way the prison abuse story is being covered in France. Have you seen French TV on this question?
J-M H : I will look at it after our interview.
N. P: Well, I can already tell you that LCI [a continuous news channel] gave it the usual cause and effect treatment. As Richard Landes told us yesterday, they level out the playing field, giving an advantage to the “weaker” party. But I’ll give you time to see it with your own eyes before commenting.
J-M H: I can tell you that two days ago I saw Chirac’s reaction before the French press. He was gloating over the scandal, patting himself on the back and saying the mistreatment of prisoners was no surprise because violence generates more violence. As if this abuse…which again I do find shocking and unacceptable…as if this were the logical consequence of the war in Iraq.
NP: When I hear their “violence causes violence” argument I wonder where they mark the starting point. Is it 9/11? No, it’s always something we have done.
J-M H: It’s always something the West has done.
NP: It might be interesting at this time to bring out some material about abuse of refugees--not prisoners but refugees--by UN troops in Africa, for example. [And Mark Steyn did it right here on FrontPage 19 May 2004!] And I suppose you might want to say something about what goes on in French prisons.
J-M H: What immediately came to my mind looking at how the media, and especially France 2, were hammering away at this, is that it took about 20 years and many scapegoats, among them Maurice Papon, before the torture practiced by the French during the Algerian war was made public. And this was something much more serious than mistreatment. In the case of the Iraqi prisoners it took a week before the perpetrators were brought to justice and the whole story was spread out before the media.
NP: Would you say that this is one important difference between the way issues are handled in France as opposed to the US?
J-M H: Oh yes, an enormous difference. In fact, France is a monarchy disguised as a democracy. Power in France is occult; there is no doubt about that. Nobody knew that Mitterand had an illegitimate daughter; the secret was kept until after he died. The financial scandals connected to Chirac when he was mayor of Paris are still covered up. When I was looking at CNN and the live broadcast of these hearings I was thinking…it was a comforting thought…that this was real democratic action. It is something I never saw, not only in my country--my former country--but in Europe in general. I am thinking that at the end of the day when the story of prisoner abuse goes back to the second page of the media it may do more good than harm.
NP: I see what you mean. And I must admit I was rather dewy-eyed watching the hearings because, as you say, in France I have never ever seen this kind of openness, not even for a small relatively unimportant investigation. Everything is secret. Besides, people come to trial seven years after the incident, and in the interim you’re not informed about anything. They can’t or don’t want to give the names of criminals when they are arrested so if criminal behavior is coming from one particular direction you’re not allowed to know it. I also wonder if the French press will give good coverage to the hearings. Or will they just say: the conclusion of the hearings is that there are worse pictures to come.
J-M H: I think that the French media are completely unable to reach this kind of conclusion, to acknowledge that political transparency in the United States is something remarkable. When I said that maybe it will do more good than harm I was also thinking about the hearings being broadcast and seen by Arabs. If the French are totally unable to see this kind of political process maybe the Arabs will be impressed by things that have never existed in their countries, where the situation is even worse than in Europe.
NP: Right. Aside from the highly sensational comments and reactions we are hearing now we can imagine a vast quiet population that might be saying: “aha, so that’s what happens in their country if a prisoner is mistreated. Even these very bad prisoners!” Maybe so. Which leads to the next question: we hear people in Europe and the United States saying that the Bush administration has alienated our European allies. We are sometimes told that the competing candidate would improve relations with our European allies. What do you think about that?
J-M H: It’s a joke. It’s only a joke. You cannot force people to participate in something when they don’t want to get involved! It doesn’t make sense. It’s very easy for Kerry to say that he will improve relations with the so-called European allies…I’m thinking about Germany, France, Russia…but unless you are totally blind or want to blind yourself you have to see that those allies do not want to have anything to do with the war in Iraq, and that was clear from the outset. There was very strong opposition from France, Russia, China and Germany before the war. I don’t see how it would be possible… Bush went to the UN, he made his point, his administration made a lot of concessions; none of this moved the so-called allies. I think they have chosen their camp and there is no way to make them change their minds.
NP: Now, if I may get even closer to the bone…do you think that Kerry knows what we know about the so-called allies?
J-M H: Obviously. But it’s just a political argument…because it costs nothing to promise. And if he becomes president—I hope he doesn’t—but if that were the case I doubt that he would be more successful than Bush.
NP: However, he might make policy changes in the hopes of being able to do it?
J-M H: I think there would be only one option in that case…
NP: …which is?
J-M H:…which is to pull out.
NP: And he wouldn’t do that?
J-M H: And he wouldn’t do that. Or to give such broad, extensive control to the UN that it would no longer be an American undertaking. Which would mean giving Iraq away to the UN and Europe, after paying such a heavy price—the most conservative estimates give close to 1000 American soldiers lost…[an article in the Washington Post the day after this conversation confirms Professor Heimonet’s warning of European intentions to move in on the US and get control of Iraq’s future].
NP: And do you think Europe would like to go back to its old influence games in Iraq? Could France renew the kind of trade relations it had with Iraq before the military campaign?
J-M H: I think it’s quite impossible. Even if America disengaged from Iraq it doesn’t mean that France and the other countries that opposed the war would benefit from that disengagement.
NP: Without getting into details and figures, what do you think will be the impact on the French economy of the loss of those lucrative relations with Iraq?
J-M H: I have no precise idea. I know that there were strong economic relations between France and Iraq but I cannot evaluate what that means in terms of the French economy. What I am really looking to see in the near future is the story about alleged bribes from Saddam Hussein to some people in the UN.
NP: You mean the oil for food scam?
J-M H: Yes.
NP: Have you seen anything about that in the French press?
J-M H: I have to admit that I don’t read the French press anymore.
NP: I understand! But could you tell our readers why.
J-M H: It was rapidly mentioned on France 2 but no further details were given. But even the American press in general is not speaking about that affair. I read in the Washington Post that some powerful bureaucrats at the UN are trying to derail all attempts to investigate the affair.
NP: So the scam has not generated the kind of interest that we see around prisoner abuse?
J-M H: Not at all. Because it’s not spectacular.
NP: In a way it is. But perhaps it’s not, as they say, “graphic.”
J-M H: That’s it. I think you chose the right word. The media are selling pictures, they are selling stories, they are not selling food for thought.
NP: Well, I can tell you that financial scandals are quite graphic on Japanese TV: the camera pans up a tall building, focuses on the floor where the disgraced company has its offices, then swings to a man ducking into in an expensive car. You can recognize a financial scandal without understanding a word of Japanese! But of course the victims of the oil for food scam in Iraq suffered in silence.
As a professor of French literature, thought, and culture do you get questions from American colleagues and students about French - US relations during this troubled period?
J-M H: To tell the truth I have not had questions on that from my colleagues or students But I brought the issue up voluntarily in the classroom. I devoted several classes to these questions last semester in my course in French Contemporary Civilization.
NP: What sort of reaction did you get from students?
J-M H: I think the students grasped the origins of the misunderstanding; I didn’t start my analysis at the war with Iraq, I tried to show them that relations between the two countries have always been more-or-less tense, and these tensions were cultural in the broadest sense of the word.
NP: That takes it out of the realm of the day’s news! We are often told in France that the problem here in the United States is…we’re talking about population to population, not governments…that the Americans are “des anti-français primaries,” they have a gross prejudice against the French that has nothing to do with any adult kind of disagreement on policy. I think this is a way of sweeping away such disagreements and ignoring the whole question of honor, courage, and defending your country. What do you think about that?
J-M H: My own experience as a Frenchman living in the United States has been just the opposite. I mean this sincerely. I have always noticed strong sympathy from Americans of all ages and social classes for everything French—our people, our culture, our language… I have consistently experienced this respect, and the same holds true for my mother, my sister, and other relatives who have come to visit me; they have always been treated well, they’ve always been helped by people in the street without even asking for anything. They have always been treated very very well. But I can tell you--since I am in charge of the Catholic University study abroad program between France and the United States--that after 9/11 many of the students we sent to France have been insulted without the slightest provocation on their part. They have been insulted, they’ve been mistreated, because of their nationality. They’ve been called “sale américain [dirty American]” and so on. And I must emphasize that these insults did not only and not always come from French people of Arab descent.
NP: After 9/11?
J-M H: Yes, after 9/11. Something like this also happened to one of my colleagues; he wanted to sublet an apartment in Paris for one month in the summer, and made an exchange with a French guy who listed a rental on the Web. For some reason my colleague had to change his plans. He wrote and explained that he would not be able to come. And he received a letter, you cannot imagine, it was pure hysteria!
NP: I had an experience where the French publisher of a book I was commissioned to translate asked for double the usual royalties from the American publisher and adamantly refused to agree on a more reasonable fee because “the Americans were getting ready to bomb Afghanistan into rubble and dust.”
J-M H: I am not surprised because I saw this type of reaction.
NP: We could talk about ways in which France and the US are undergoing similar cultural processes, a theme you develop in La Démocratie en mal d’altérité, but for the purposes of this interview I would like to focus on the differences. Do you think that France and the United States are going towards the same future?
J-M H: I think they made opposite choices.
NP: And are those choices recent?
J-M H: I’m not so sure. It is difficult to give a very precise date for when it started but I would say that this opposition to America, under the pretext that it was an imperialist country, could be traced back to de Gaulle. Just at the end of WW II. De Gaulle’s hatred for the Americans is common knowledge. In a way the Americans deprived him of what he considered as his own personal victory.
NP: And the current president of France prides himself on being a Gaulliste. De Gaulle is considered a hero. I’m stepping on hot ground here, but…do you think De Gaulle’s hatred of America has something to do with the fact that he led the résistance from a distance and his “victory” was not exactly the kind that would deserve a reputation for greatness?
J-M H: It’s a broader question than that. De Gaulle and Chirac simply embody a mindset in French culture; this brings us back to what I meant when I said that France and America have made opposite choices, because one of those countries is looking towards the future and the other is looking towards the past. France is still mourning its past glory, and cannot accept that its role on the world stage nowadays is only a secondary one. Political leaders will find every possible way to oppose America even if…and this is what is most surprising and shows the psychoanalytic nature of this attitude…even if this systematic opposition to America has negative consequences on French interests.
NP: In which case France becomes even less powerful. The only way France could be powerful today would be as an ally?
J-M H: Yes. In a way this is typical of French character. In a way they—I say “they,” speaking of the French people--prefer symbolic victory rather than a pragmatic concrete historical victory, a victory in terms of realpolitik.
NP: And you would find this at all levels--the intelligentsia, political figures, and the man on the street?
J’M H: Yes, these people are living in a dream, or in a text, in an abstract bubble, they are lying to themselves. What’s more they are, in a typical way, perverting their own democratic culture…because we should remember that democracy in Europe is, in a way, French.
NP: Is France also losing ground within the European Union by trying to maintain the initial hardcore French-German control?
J-M H: Again they are dreaming of getting back into first place. If they cannot do it on the world stage they hope at least to do it on the European level with the help of the Germans. It’s always the same quest for lost grandeur and every decision made by French leaders goes in the same direction.
NP: That leads to my next and perhaps last question. Do you think that France today is in a state of distress?
J-M H: Totally. A state of total distress.
NP: Where could hope come from? Where could hope come for French youth for example?
J-M H: For French youth? That is a very interesting question. Montesquieu asked Comment peut-on être persan [how can one be Persian]? And today I am wondering how could any courageous ambitious young person stay in France. I go for a visit to France once a year, I look around, I look at my own family and I have to admit that most of my cousins and my brothers-in-law are complete failures. My wife’s brother, who is about my age, fifty-three or fifty-four, has been unemployed from the time we left France in 1980 to the present. He gets an odd job from time to time, and we could say he has a happy life, because his parents have money, he’s been surviving as a kept man from the age of 30 to 53. But I wonder what he would do if his parents didn’t have money, since he has no retirement pension. My other brother-in-law is a photographer; he works very hard, he has done everything that was possible to be successful but because of repressive bureaucratic measures he has never managed to make money from his business, so he is just scraping through, and there again he has to get help from the family.
NP: This could be an accurate description of France writ large: living on old architecture, family jewels, old money and an old reputation? But we’ll have to leave this question for another day. Thank you, Jean-Michel Heimonet, for sharing your perceptive thoughts in this engaging criss-cross dialogue between a French American and an American in France.
J-M H: The pleasure is mine.