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Sophie Meunier

Sophie Meunier

Posted: January 10, 2011 01:03 PM

French President Nicolas Sarkozy meets with Barack Obama in Washington today, ostensibly to discuss the agenda for the upcoming G8 and G20 summits, both of which France presides over this year. Sarkozy has much to gain from this opportunity to showcase France as the first country ever to head both international forums simultaneously. Should the United States be concerned?

After all, despite Sarkozy's sincere love of the United States, the objectives he has laid out for the June G8 summit in Deauville and November G20 summit in Cannes look like a typically French frontal assault against Washington. France's stated ambition is no less than a brand new international monetary system -throw in also the regulation of commodities markets and the renovation of global economic governance for good measure. The underlying analysis behind this ambitious objective is that international financial instability comes from the privilege of the dollar as reserve currency. Eliminating this privilege, the argument goes, would also better reflect the new multipolar economic reality. Absent a world currency to replace the dollar and serious competition from the euro and the yuan, a revamping of the international monetary system would start with an increased role for the IMF's Special Drawing Rights.

One can easily read these French priorities for the G8/G20 through an anti-American lens. Challenging the dollar's prominence enables France to challenge American power -- a tactic well understood by General de Gaulle in the 1960s when he denounced the "exorbitant privilege" conferred to the US by the role of the dollar as reserve currency. De Gaulle's solution? Convert French dollar reserves into gold. As the decidedly un-French Yogi Berra once said, "It's déjà vu all over again."

Concerns about an anti-U.S. French agenda are further reinforced by rumors about a supposed deal between France and China -- in which France got the G20 presidency this year thanks to Chinese support in return for a pompous state visit by Hu Jintao to France last November and a spring 2011 G20 seminar on exchange rates in China.

In addition, pundits point to the fact that Sarkozy is running for reelection in 2012 and could be stoking old anti-American feelings in France to distract attention from his less than popular domestic policies. He could benefit doubly from publicly attacking and reorganizing "neo-liberal Anglo-Saxon globalization" both to prevent the French Left from using such rhetoric to build its own case, and to neutralize the IMF and its managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn who might be his most formidable competitor in 2012.

But is it really "déjà vu all over again?" There might, in fact, be a more benign interpretation of France's agenda for the G8 and G20. It could be more the result of legacy than deliberate choice, a coming together of the unfinished business of the prior summits and the unprecedented crisis of the euro. The "French touch" to the 2011 agenda might simply reflect France's technocratic and regulatory method of confronting problems than its supposed anti-Americanism. France has come a long way since a decade ago when a French farmer became a national hero for destroying a McDonalds and it seems unlikely that it has shifted back to its old ways so dramatically in the past months. As for the reform of the international monetary system, it is not a given that it will hurt the U.S. -- in fact, it could very well end up helping the dollar. The agenda, in fact, gets to the thorny issue of the undervaluation of the yuan in a comprehensive and organized manner, rather than the bilateral and confrontational approach tried last year -- with no success -- by the Obama administration.

The truth is that the U.S. may have dropped from being a "super power" to just a "regular" power, and this fall from its pedestal has weakened those who paint America as the economic bully. In short, anti-Americanism simply does not pay off in French politics any more. French politicians on the left and right still call for "economic patriotism" to protect domestic companies from foreign takeovers, but these calls are no longer directed against American giants like McDonalds and PepsiCo. China is the new concern. Indeed, 47% of French people believe that China is today the world's leading economic power, while only 41% believe it is the US -- a far cry from reality.1 The United States is no longer a threat or even a useful bogeyman in French politics.

The world has undeniably entered a post-American era, where the US power will coexist alongside other powers, especially in the economic sphere. This post-American era may also usher in, especially in Europe, a post-anti-American era. In these conditions, the US can rejoice about the French push for new global economic governance and start to regret the good old days when it felt as if the French were all anti-American.

Sophie Meunier is a Research Scholar in Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and Co-Director of the European Union Program at Princeton. She is the author of The French Challenge: Adapting to Globalization (Brookings, 2001) and Trading Voices: The European Union in International Commercial Negotiations (Princeton University Press, 2005) and is currently writing a book on the politics of anti-Americanism.