updated 10/19/2004 3:18:58 AM ET 2004-10-19T07:18:58

They grew up listening to ’70s soul, learning to break dance, wearing Nikes, watching the “Star Wars” trilogy again and again. For the French rap group IAM, the fascination with American culture started when they were kids.

When the musicians from Marseille made their first trip to New York to cut an album, “I felt like a Catholic going to the Vatican, or a Muslim to Mecca,” rapper Shurik’n said in an interview.

Yet many things about the United States make them rage: In one song, rapper Akhenaton attacks the idea that President Bush can bring America’s democracy to Iraq. “What democracy?” he spits into the mike.

IAM sees nothing contradictory about using an American-grown music medium — rap — to bash American policies. The same goes for people across Europe who wear Levi’s to march against the U.S. occupation of Iraq, or who munch on Old El Paso chips and salsa while they write Bush off as a cowboy who prefers his Texas ranch to the world outside.

In Europe, America — and all things American — are part of the rhythm of daily life. Turn on the television, and there’s “Temptation Island.” Even in the world of winemaking, whose traditions were born in ancient Europe, the leading critic is Robert Parker, an American from Baltimore.

Love affair — with strings
Because America’s influence enters almost every sphere, people’s feelings about it are complex, nuanced and contradictory. And people who go looking for signs of blatant anti-Americanism won’t find much.

Take McDonald’s.

In 2003, while some Americans boycotted Bordeaux wines and branded French fries “freedom fries” to protest French opposition to the Iraq war, there was no reciprocal backlash here. McDonald’s in France was the most profitable and fastest-growing subsidiary in Europe, with 2003 revenue approaching $3 billion.

The hard facts come as a surprise in a country where anti-globalization campaigner Jose Bove led the ransacking of a McDonald’s under construction in southern France in 1999 and became a national hero.

Even the mustachioed sheep farmer’s relation to America is more complicated than it seems. Bove spent part of his youth in California, where his parents studied at Berkeley.

French President Jacques Chirac is also at ease in his ambivalence about the United States. At a news conference this summer at the G8 summit in Georgia, he railed against U.S. policies on issues from the environment to Iraq. Then, when it was over, he gleefully recounted his days as a soda jerk at a Howard Johnson’s in the United States.

France’s relations with the United States have always been historically solid, though laced with incomprehension. The French diplomat Talleyrand summed up France’s bafflement centuries ago: “The United States has 32 religions but only one dish,” he lamented.

During the disagreement over Iraq, the mutual bafflement flared into anger and distrust.

The French, proud of their heritage, were stung by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s dig at “the old Europe.” Bush offended French diplomatic etiquette when he said bluntly that Chirac shouldn’t expect an invitation to his beloved Texas ranch.

Beyond Iraq, other conflicts run deep. Many French people are outraged that the United States presents itself as a defender of human rights while maintaining the death penalty in many states. They cannot forgive Bush for his 2001 rejection of the Kyoto treaty on the environment.

Yet these complaints don’t prevent the French from keeping 35 Gap clothing stores in business or making “Finding Nemo” the top film of the past year. People here relish having a blend of both worlds, a dollop of Americana with their helping of the “Old Europe.”

Riffing America
Mix it all up, and you come up with a rap band like IAM — completely at home in its contradictions.

IAM is one of the country’s most enduring rap groups, and its 1997 album “L’ecole du micro d’argent” (School of the Silver Microphone) is considered by many to be the best in French rap.

The group’s three main rappers wore Nike sneakers and Reebok sweats to a recent interview at their management offices, a stucco villa on a brush-covered hill overlooking the Mediterranean.

At a kitchen table cluttered with espresso cups, they chatted on subjects from Renaissance philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli to illiteracy in the Arab world to their favorite places to shop in Harlem.

In the 1990s, when the band was taking off, IAM used to think seriously about making New York its base.

Shurik’n ticked off the reasons, in no particular order: Hip-hop culture is omnipresent. You can go out to eat at 2 a.m. People smile more. Americans see possibilities everywhere.

New York “was a huge revelation for us,” said Shurik’n, whose family is from Madagascar and Reunion Island.

Of the three, Akhenaton has the closest ties to the United States. He is of Italian origin, and most of his relatives emigrated to the United States — like his Uncle Tony from Miami. Akhenaton spent more than two years in New York, on and off.

Someday, he would love to visit the West to see the sequoia forests and the Grand Canyon.

“When it comes to natural beauty, it’s a fantastic country,” said Akhenaton, whose rap nickname comes from the mysterious pharaoh who presided over a short-lived revolution in Egyptian art.

That blend of admiration and anger is a typical response in France, and it surfaces almost every time IAM talks about America.

Akhenaton hates Bush’s foreign policy, but he applauds Americans who speak out against it, like Sean Penn or Michael Moore, who won the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize for his anti-Bush film “Fahrenheit 911.”

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