For Some in France, America Is the Biggest Problem

By Isabelle Roughol

Forget Iran and its nuclear program, the Middle East and its intractable conflict, North Korea, global warming or famine.

According to the French far-left, "the United States of America are the world's biggest problem."

This assertion earned Jean-Luc Melenchon, figurehead of the Front de Gauche, the applause of more than 2,000 supporters assembled in the southwestern city of Talence in December.

If lambasting France is a common trick in the US Republican primaries, a similar tactic has emerged in France.

The French too are choosing a president this year - elections are April 22 and May 6 - and although anti-Americanism isn't as popular as it used to be, close to one in three voters is rooting for a candidate who openly questions Paris' alliance with Washington either on the left, in Melenchon, or the right, in Front National candidate Marine Le Pen.

These candidates have a slim chance of winning. But their campaigns are playing on - and playing up - anti-American sentiment that has long lurked just below the surface of French politics.

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The French don't loathe Americans. But the love-hate relationship many French people have for American power, culture and influence can evoke strong sentiment that is rife for politicians in need of a boost at the polls.

Melenchon, who is polling at about 9 percent, is the most virulent in his attacks. An admirer of Hugo Chavez, he has taken to calling the United States "the empire" and its European allies "vassals."

The American model for the economy, based on limitless consumption and military spending, is a "deadly contraption" that remains the "main cause of the crisis of human civilization," he writes in his best-selling essay "Qu'ils s'en aillent tous." (Translation: Let's kick them all out.)

If elected - a very remote possibility - he would pull France out of NATO and strengthen ties with China and Russia.

Criticism of America's dominance on the world economy finds an echo in French public opinion, wrangled by the debt crisis and the perspective of austerity measures after the election.

"We've always followed the United States, a few years behind, but for me it is the worst kind of model," said Francine Pietka, a participant in the "Indignes" movement, France's version of Occupy Wall Street, who was at a rally protesting austerity measures in Greece.

"They represent the worst of many areas: their politics, their lack of a social safety net, their meddling in many countries, their expansionism."

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