School Textbooks in France Display Anti-American Bias

By Eva Cahen | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Paris ( - After reading textbooks used to teach contemporary history to high school students in France, it can be hard to imagine that the French view themselves as long-standing allies of the United States.

In one textbook published by Breal, one finds the statement: "The Great Soviet Satan having been vanquished, the American government designates the new enemies menacing world security."

Another, published by Delagrave, reads: "Americanization leads to deculturalization, populations lose their values if not their most elementary reference points."

These and other statements are quoted in a book written by history teacher Barbara Lefebvre and journalist Eve Bonnivard, who set out to examine history textbooks used by high school freshmen and seniors.

In Eleves sous Influence (Students Under Influence), the authors examined 24 books, most of them written in 2003 and 2004, to see how they presented the U.S. in the post-9/11 world.

They found a prevalent anti-American tone, with numerous examples of the U.S. equated with hegemony, globalization and a constant search for war and enemies.

Even more noteworthy was the presentation of terrorism as a response to American policies.

"Islamic radicalism remains an ideology of mobilization against the West for those who see in globalization a risk of cultural uniformity and U.S. dominance," says a textbook published by Nathan.

"America's power provokes outbreaks of anti-Americanism whose extreme form takes the name of holy war or jihad launched by bin Laden," states another text, published by Magnard.

"Islamism and jihad terrorism are presented to the student as a response to globalization," Lefebvre said in an interview here.

In their treatment of terrorism, the textbooks often failed to provide a critical approach for the student.

If you don't criticize the means being used, she said, "students will believe the end justifies the means."

Lefebvre said she decided to embark on the project when she noticed that students and history teachers alike frequently held a simplistic view of current events.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, when France was leading a campaign of opposition at the United Nations, she recalled seeing students and teachers attending anti-war demonstrations together.

This intrusion of politics into the classroom bothered her. On further examination, she noticed that textbooks used for teaching current events reflected mainstream public opinion. They failed to provide a historical perspective or to ask students to search for explanations beyond "face value" statements.

Lefebvre found that the texts often demonized the U.S. for what was described as a "belligerent" and "hegemonic" form of democracy, evidently in a bid to enhance the French ideals of pacifism and multiculturalism.

"Anti-Americanism has been part of the French culture since the French revolution," she said. "France has always considered that it set the example for democracy, that it was the home of human rights.

"One feels in the textbooks that there is a conflict between the two forms of democratic universalism."

Some of the textbooks suggest terrorism as a phenomenon started with 9/11 and is being used to counter American power.

France is called a peaceful nation with no designated adversaries. No mention is made of the deadly Algerian terrorist attacks in France in the 1980-1990s, of an Islamist bomb attack against a busload of French nationals in Pakistan in 2002, nor of terrorist strikes in places such as Bali or Casablanca. In both latter cases, the victims included French nationals.

Other U.S. policies are also dealt with critically. One textbook article on U.S. opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change carries the title: "To pollute is good for the health of the United States."

Lefebvre said that while many of the textbooks shared the anti-American view, some do not. Those by the publisher Hachette, for instance, were well written and placed current events into historical perspective. They are also among the most widely used textbooks in French schools.

The author said Eleves sous Influence has been well received by most history teachers to whom she has spoken. In general, press reviews have also been favorable.

Even some textbook editors have said they would undertake changes in future editions.

"The great majority of the French population loves the United States," argued Lefebvre. "The French love to go to the U.S., and American culture is loved in France.

"Being against the U.S. is the point of view of a minority, a small group of elite intellectuals from Paris who feel they have to be anti-American and sarcastic about all things American," she said.

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