Illustration By Soobin Hong
“Whether we want it or not, Trump governs the planet. When he gets a cold in the White House, it’s the whole world that sneezes,” said François Busnel, co-founder of the French magazine America.
- “Qu’on le veuille ou pas, Trump gouverne la planète. Quand il est malade dans la Maison Blanche, c’est le monde entier qui éternue,” dit François Busnel, le co-fondateur du magazine français America.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the whole world started sneezing, getting the Trump-16 virus. The epidemic quickly spread from Washington D.C. to New York. In New York, the media world was showing signs of fever, publishing articles about Trump by the minute, keeping pace with his frenetic tweeting. Whether you were an anti-Trump publication, or a TV channel that made a cult out of him, by hand-picking the information shared to defend the president, no one was safe. Once New York got infected, it was only a matter of time before Trump-16 would spread outside of the U.S., on the other side of the Atlantic. In this case, in France.
I am a French woman who moved to New York in 2018, in the middle of Trump’s presidency. Since I have been living in the U.S., one recurrent question, asked by my (French) family and friends, is: “How is it to live in the U.S.?” The real question disguised under this chit-chat is: “How horrible is it to live in a country led by Trump?” To which they expect me to answer, “Absolutely horrible! I want to come back to France right now, at least we know how to make decent food!”
- “Horrible! Je veux rentrer en France tout de suite, au moins on sait cuisiner!”
One could call this curiosity. Realistically, it is closer to an obsession, one of the symptoms of Trump-16 contaminating everyone in France. I have observed it with my father, who takes real pleasure in telling me about Donald Trump’s wrongdoings every time we converse. His purpose isn’t to share the information with me, but specifically to make France and its government look better next to that of the United States.
It is important to explain the need for reassurance found in the French bullying of the U.S. Since 2017, France has been seeing one of the longest periods and amount of strikes. From its YellowVests movement, a popular movement sparked by a rise in fuel taxes with no clear political view or ideology beside a shared dislike for president Macron, to the National Railroad Company that keeps on striking year after year. This one incidentally kept me from going home for Christmas. France is close to another revolution. So the U.S. electing Trump became the perfect outlet for the French’s anger towards their own country. I can’t tell whether this obsession is fueled by admiration or mere curiosity, but it has definitely become a nationally shared feeling resembling an epidemic. My father’s attitude towards the U.S. is the general one adopted in France: obsessing, nitpicking, and criticizing to make France look better.
- L’attitude de mon père envers les U.S. est l’attitude générale adoptée en France: obséder, chercher la petite bête, et critiquer pour faire passer la France pour mieux qu’elle ne l’est.
François Busnel, presenter and producer of the TV show La Grande Librairie, and Eric Fottorino, director of the daily magazine Le 1, understood this French obsession with the United States when they dedicated a whole magazine to the country, America. America is a direct result of the Trump-16 virus and reflection of the French’s attitude towards the U.S. The publication will run during Trump’s presidential mandate exclusively, as explained by Busnel in various interviews. The possibility of a second term hasn’t been discussed by Busnel. Considering the turnover of 2.7 million euros made by the magazine in 2018, I wouldn’t be surprised to see new issues of America if Trump-16 mutates into Trump-20.
In a Forbes interview, Busnel affirmed, “Whether you like or do not like the U.S., you can not pretend this country does not exist. The U.S. with Donald Trump is the most feared country in the world. Donald Trump is like a character from a novel, it is fascinating, yet almost unreal. How did he arrive to the White House, how he is going to maintain his power, and how his decisions are going to impact the world.”
Busnel and Fottorino found an ingenious way to make a whole magazine out of Trump (which wasn’t even done in the U.S.). Busnel explained in his interview with Forbes “We don’t want to give any morals and judgements, we are not here to dictate anything, we are here to understand the situation. In America, we report what we see. We are not editorialists, we are not giving any opinions.”
- “On ne veut pas donner de leçon de morale et de jugements, on est pas là pour dicter quoi que ce soit, on est là pour comprendre la situation. À America, on rapporte ce qu’on voit. On est pas des éditorialistes, on ne donne pas du tout d’opinions.”
The publication uses both French and American writers for its audience of French liberal intellectuals. Featuring American and French writers (alongside other nationalities) guarantees having at least more than one side of the narrative: the foreigner’s, the expatriate’s, and the local’s point of view. This is important to highlight because when you are answering the French’s obsession with the U.S., it would be tempting to only use French writers to dissect Trump’s presidency and its consequence on the country. According to Busnel, the novelists also are better equipped to analyze political events, as the sensibility used in their writing allows them to write differently than journalists. The magazine gives power to carefully selected and oriented American literature, offering cultural diversity to the French literary landscape. In French schools, the only non-French piece of literature I was assigned was The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe; otherwise it would be Marguerite Duras, Guy de Maupassant, Alfred de Musset or Emile Zola. American literature feels almost non-existent in France but America gives it a space to tell the story of “America like you’ve never read it” and the one of “America from the ground level and without prejudice: its beauty, but also its flaws and its rifts”.
- “L’Amérique à hauteur d’homme et sans préjugés : sa beauté, mais aussi ses failles et ses fêlures.”
Of course, the authenticity of these quotes is questionable when said by a French person, especially when we acknowledge America’s lack of diversity. The two issues faced by the magazine both come from the choice of writers. The first issue is a triple threat: racism, sexism and homophobia. The majority of writers are white cis-men and Busnel is proud of reading them, citing John Irving, Donald Ray Pollock, Russell Banks and Jim Harrison as his references in American literature. His literary interests are racist, homophobic and sexist, which is reflected in his magazine. There is also a matter of the writers not being contemporary. In the first issue, Andre Clavel and Julien Tisson (two of the magazine’s journalists) analyze It Can’t Happen Here (1935) by Sinclair Lewis, dedicate a section to Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville, and use F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, as if they were still alive. They talk about “the ways the United States are torn by a temptation to authoritarianism, a country with a fascist spectrum” or how these novels predicted Trump’s election. These wild conclusions would probably not be endorsed by the writers. However, the use of dead writers is genius. It leaves Busnel and his staff the freedom to give wild interpretations of the writers’ texts in the magazine. With dead writers, there is no one to contest America’s analysis of their work.
- Ça laisse Busnel et son staff la liberté de donner des interprétations extravagantes des textes des auteurs dans le magazine. Avec des auteurs morts, il n’y a personne pour contester l’analyse faite par America de leur travail.
America is free to paint their picture of what they think the U.S. is.
The second issue comes from the political stance of the writers chosen, at least of those who are still alive. The use of a majority of American writers would make this a fair fight if they weren’t all anti-Trump. The cover makes it clear that this isn’t going to be a fair account of the U.S. under Trump’s presidency. By page 18, America is ridiculing Trump and affirming its leftist stance. “The Goldfish Chronicle,”
- “La Chronique du Poisson Rouge”
a chronicle written in a poetically sarcastic way, is narrated by the goldfish in the oval office. The fish even takes the appearance of Trump: squinty eyes, pouty mouth, yellow hair with the front swoop, and orange skin. That doesn’t really look like a magazine who isn’t making fun of the United States.
I am not defending Trump, “The Goldfish Chronicle” is one of my favorite parts of the mook. My problem lies in the noble mission America claims to have, which is to tell the facts through the eyes of writers without judging or mocking. Having such a publication could be constructive, if it wasn’t so elitist. France would need to know, realistically, what is happening in the U.S. during Trump’s mandate. Instead, America’s audience is looking for a magazine that will challenge them intellectually by offering them access to special content and new takes on American classics, whilst reinforcing their biased belief that the U.S. is screwed and that France is doing much better next to them. And Busnel understands this. Promoting their mission as a noble one is a perfect alibi to start the magazine, but they clearly do not care for respecting this mission. They have yielded to the Trump-16 virus, like everyone else in the U.S. and in France, and seem happy this way.
- Ils ont succombé au virus Trump-16, comme tout le monde aux U.S. et en France, et paraisse heureux comme ça.
Since the magazine first got published, Busnel has given extensive interviews about America, in which he shares his love for the United States, and his “intellectual’s” point of view on it. He uses the terms love and fascination alongside, if not interchangeably, as seen in his Forbes’ interview. “I would say I love [the United States] because firstly I don’t understand it. It is the biggest paradox in the world. This country is fascinating and repulsive. […] It is the mosaic of this country I love above all…. This country which has been the country of future is at the same time the most retarded. It’s fascinating.” After this backhanded compliment, he mentions the lack of culture in the U.S., whilst forgetting to mention the American literary culture exploited in his magazine. Why create a magazine using American writers to talk about American culture, if there is not such a thing as American culture in the first place? As a white French man, his definition of culture (which is quite homogenous when considering French culture) is different from the American one. The United States can’t be defined by one single culture, but rather by a multitude of cultures, which the French struggle to grasp.
One way America deals with Trump-16 is by talking about the predecessor, Barack Obama. In the first issue, the extensive interview with Toni Morrison starts as a eulogy of Barack Obama, punctuated by a photo of Morrison and Obama laughing together. If this photo had a realistic caption it would be, “It was better before.”
- “C’était mieux avant”
This eulogy is given a whole section in the magazine of about 39 pages (out of 200). The magazine’s personal opinions and feelings openly reflect France’s relation with the U.S. and their respective presidents. During Obama’s terms, both Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande had a good relationship with the former American president. Les Echos even shows that the most visited country by the former U.S. president was France. Currently, the relation between France and the United States is quite tense. The ongoing feud between Macron and Trump is public and doesn’t seem to improve. It started from the day they first met, with a lengthy handshake filled with testosterone, and got worse when Macron and Justin Trudeau got caught making fun of Trump at NATO. This has obviously been impacting the relations between France and the U.S.
More than an attack against Donald Trump or a vengeance, the magazine’s content shows a general nostalgia for the pre-Trump era. Anti-Trump partisans miss the time before the Trump-16 viral epidemic started contaminating the whole world, when their president was popular amongst foreign countries. In France, like in a majority of New York City, there is both a strong dislike of Trump and an obsession with him, driving French people to constantly speak about him. Between the French and Americans, there has always been both admiration and jealousy. It is referred to as “Anti-Americanism.” Slate in the U.S. has tried to answer the question, “Why do the French hate us?”
- “Pourquoi les français nous détestent?”
Hate isn’t the right word to describe France/U.S. relationships. I don’t think my father hates the United States. He could consider living here if Trump wasn’t president. He simply is obsessed with knowing everything that happens here so he can comfort himself that France is the best country in the world and try to make me regret leaving France. Like Busnel with America. This magazine is produced to comfort liberal French people about their insecurities regarding their own country. Magazines like America wouldn’t exist if the French were “anti-American”. France’s Americanization, with the adoption of fast-food, burgers on the menu of bistros, but most importantly its love for American cinema and openness to American novelists, shows the country’s admiration towards the United States. 4 percent of the French language is made of English words. Yet, this adoption is tinted with Frenchness. The burgers have been appropriated and Frenchized, the English words are used in different contexts (e.g. “pressing” is used to refer to “dry cleaner”), and French literature remains the only basis of French education. This is what the U.S. would call “Anti-Americanism,” yet I would call it “Frenchization of American culture”.
In an article by Columbia Journalism Review, Eric Fottorino, the co-founder of America, argues that France’s obsession with the United States comes from the fear that what is happening there might also happen in France and Europe. Whilst Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, won the French presidential elections against Marine Le Pen, she still got 33,9 percent of the votes. In early 2019, the same political party, Le Pen’s, won the European elections in France, gaining popularity throughout the European Union (in Italy, Belgium and Spain). Liberal French citizens are feeling the noose of extremism tightening on them, contemplating a potential (scary) future through the United States’ current situation. America ultimately gives an answer to French liberal intellectuals that are wondering about the state of the U.S.’s political and social climate, through various pieces of literature. The country’s leader is divisive and unpopular amongst the country’s most famous writers. Sometimes America mocks him, sometimes they try to understand him.
Overall, when I read America, I enjoy the selection of American literature offered to me but the tone of voice of the magazine makes me feel like I’m talking with my father. America reflects the general behavior of a vast majority of French people. They judge and mock certain aspects of the United States (mainly its current president) obsessively, but enjoy its literary world.
As for me, after almost two years living in the United States, I don’t think my answer to “how is it to live in the U.S.?”
- “C’est comment vivre aux États-Unis?”
can satisfy French people. The truth is that I don’t think that as a white French cis-woman who lives in New York City, I can truly feel the impact Trump is having. So, I apologize to my dear French people if my answer doesn’t satisfy their obsession for the U.S., but America will. I sometimes trick myself into believing that I didn’t get infected by the Trump-16 virus, but by writing this article, I realize I did. Living in New York, and being in touch with the publishing world, one is bound to catch it. All you can do is try to live as normally as possible and hope that the virus won’t mutate into a Trump-20.
- Tout ce que tu peux faire, c’est vivre aussi normalement que possible et espérer que le virus ne mutera pas en un Trump-20.