From time to time I find myself reading about episodes in French history that, while not strictly related to the university system, nonetheless seem like important points of historical reference. This one will, I guess, probably be well known to any French historian, but it was a surprise to me. It has to do with the economic politics of Coca-Cola’s arrival in France in the period just after the Second World War. Let me quote a long passage from Robert Gildea’s handy France since 1945, which is where I found out about this:
The Americans insisted on the right political conditions for aid [direly needed by post-war Europe]; they also demanded the right economic conditions. These were imposed by a series of missions in each European country receiving Marshall Aid… and bilateral agreements made with each recipient power. That with France was signed in June 1948, and the three brief ministries in power between 1948 and 1949 all pursued policies of economic austerity, balancing the budget by spending cuts and tax rises, and price and wage controls to bring down inflation. The Americans also required that all barriers to their exports and investment be removed, so France was inundated not only by American products but also by propaganda selling the American way of life. ‘Will France become an American colony?’ asked one book in 1948, exposing the threat from American Westerns and gangster movies, children’s comics such as Donald, Tarzan, and Zorro, and magazines controlled by Reader’s Digest, called Sélection in France.
The French won a minor victory in September 1948, when the French boxer Marcel Cerdan became world champion by beating an American in Jersey City. The real battle, however, was fought over Coca-Cola. Fed to GIs during the war, it was then the object of a sustained campaign to penetrate European markets. Coca-Cola was not simply a product, it was an image: that of the consumer society, on the wings of mass advertising, ‘the essence of capitalism’ in every bottle according to its president, James Farley, a weapon in the global ideological battle against Communism. Bottling operations were started in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg in 1947, but in France there was great opposition, first from the Communist party, which argued that they would become ‘Coca-colonisés’ and that the distribution network would double as a spy network, and second from the winegrowing, fruit-juice, and mineral-water interests. The French government, concerned by the trade deficit and the repatriation of profits, turned down requests by Coca-Cola to invest in France in 1948 and 1949, and banned the ingredients from Casablanca.
A bill was tabled by the deputy mayor of Montpellier on behalf of the winegrowers to empower the health ministry to investigate the content of drinks made with vegetable extracts in the name of public health. Its passage through the National Assembly in February 1940 provoked a storm of controversy. Farley visited the State Department and the French ambassador in Washington. The Americans put pressure on the French government. An article appeared in Le Monde entitled ‘To Die for Coca-Cola’, mimicking the ‘To Die for Danzig?’ article of 1939. ‘We have accepted chewing gum and Cecil B. De Mille, Reader’s Digest and be-bop,’ it read. ‘It’s over soft drinks that the conflict has erupted. Coca-Cola seems to be the Danzig of European culture. After Coca-Cola, enough.’ The French government was caught between the anger of French public opinion and the need to retain the favour of the American government. In the end the matter was resolved by the French courts, which ruled that the contents of Coca-Cola were neither fraudulent nor a health hazard. The French government retained its honour and the Americans obtained their market.
I had always had a sense that Coca-Cola is at times perceived as some sort of symbol of America here in France, a sense that there is at times resentment of certain sorts of American commodities, particularly the ones that come to define mass culture. But I had always imagined that these resentments were mostly based on a sort of arbitrary cultural antagonism, a bit of commodity nationalism, and maybe a certain amount of more general geopolitical and historical distress that the French Empire is mostly gone while the USA has been globally ascendant. What to me is so striking about this tale of Coca-Cola is that, actually, no, things seem way more specific than that. Actually it seems that there’s a fairly direct reason why French people might be antagonistic towards Coca-Cola: in a word, that it was imposed on them as a condition of American post-war economic aid. That it was imposed, more broadly, as one facet of an American-imposed economic liberalization — meaning free access for American corporate goods and investments. (In passing, I have to say I was not really aware that this sort of coercive free trade policy had been imposed on Europe by the USA after 1945; these days it seems like it’s usually the global South that’s mentioned as resisting free-market policies.)
Now, I doubt that this Cold War episode about the introduction of Coca-Cola is likely known to a very large fraction of today’s French population. And it bears saying that Coca-Cola is a massively well-entrenched feature of consumer drinking culture here, available at virtually every restaurant and supermarket I can think of, brought on family picnics and widely consumed in campus cafeterias — and it’s almost never the object of any visible controversy. Nonetheless, the lesson for me is that, to the extent that there are lingering antagonisms towards Coca-Cola and other similar products (eg, McDonald’s), these may have a fairly concrete historical justification.
Of course, to push things one step farther, we also have to think about why Coca-Cola became the object of calculated opposition in the first place — why, in other words, it became an objectionable symbol of Americanization. According to Gildea, again, two groups led the opposition: the French beverage industry, which obviously had an economic interest in keeping out foreign competitors, and the French Communists of the time, who were presumably fairly anti-American in that period. Conversely, of course, Farley from Coca-Cola claimed that his product was the essence of capitalism in a bottle, which does make the ideological conflict with the French Communists seem inevitable…
I for one was happy to be reminded that even these hyperbanal products of everyday consumption, like Coke, have political histories. Of course, these political controversies continue in the present.