I first heard about “conspiracy theories” when reading the American media and books about the United States, and when traveling to that country. I heard about the many theories surrounding the assassination of president John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his brother Robert. I heard about the theory that aliens had landed in the United States and some remnants were hidden in Hangar 18 at Area 51, a secret military base in the Nevada desert, or is it at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base?

More recently, I've read that prominent politicians, including at least one Republican presidential candidate and a former one, question whether President Obama was truly born in Hawaii (and thus was a natural-born American, fit to be president) as opposed to Kenya, and thus whether he lied on this important fact. Some go as far as to say his birth certificate was doctored, or that he is secretly a Muslim. How about the theory, which seems quite widespread among the American Right, that Global Warming is a hoax promoted by left-wing academics who wish to push Communism under the guise of environmentalism?

In comparison, I can name few French conspiracy theories. The only one that comes to my mind is the affaire Saint-Aubin, a mostly-forgotten case about a 1964 death about a car accident that was allegedly a misdirected assassination. It looks to me indeed, that conspiracy theories are very much an American, not French, cultural trait.

Let us pass quickly on the snide remark that American was France's savior in World War I and II, from which it seems that Mr Cohen infers that French citizens should blindly follow whatever the US government fancies. Again, facts matter. Historical evidence shows that there is a high chance that the second attack in the Gulf of Tonkin incident was at best imaginary, at worst a deliberate lie of the US government in order to escalate the military intervention in Southeast Asia; thus the murderous Vietnam war, which caused so much grievance in both the region and the United States, was to some extent born on a lie. Closer to us, it seems that the claims of existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were, at best, self-deceptive results of intelligence incompetence from the United States government, at worst, deliberate lies in order to allow for a military intervention. French citizens thus have reasons to take the claims of the US government with a pinch of salt.

We could also mention the documented activities of J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigations in the control of political dissent, including investigations into the private lives of activists such as Martin Luther King. Am I a conspiracy theorist when I claim that such activities are more becoming to the political police of an authoritarian country than a law enforcement agency of a democracy?

Let us now examine the alleged French dependency on “functionaries”, compared to alleged “freedom” in the United States. Having lived in both France and the United States, I can attest that on both sides of the Atlantic, there is high dependence on decisions taken by faceless bureaucracies andsecurity officers, as well as government intervention into what should be each individual's choice. Just witness daily life: in the United States, due to laws meant to protect young adults under 21 from harming themselves, one generally has to show proof of identification and age to buy alcohol; in some places, they do it if you look under 40. In American airports, you get ordered by agents of the Transportation Security Agency to undergo millimeter-wavelength scanning, even though the label on the scanner claims the operation is “voluntary” (but you get to read the label only when you walk into the device).

The dependency of the US media and intellectual sectors on the government has been well-documented. Former general and conservative president Dwight Eisenhower warned that the massive military spending of the United States would create a “military-industrial complex”, which could endanger liberties. For instance, many scientists in the United States are dependent on DARPA or other military agencies for funding; can you hope them to be perfectly objective, should they have to question government policies? Regarding the media, the observations made by Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing consent cannot be easily brushed away, even though one is not forced to accept all his claims.

Therefore, both of Mr Cohen's claims are dubious. Now, where Mr Cohen still has a point, but much weaker that the one he was attempting to make.

In France, due to the way that law enforcement operates, the top levels of the national government would have been immediately informed should an international VIP such as, for instance, the US Federal Reserve's Ben Bernanke, be arrested. Contrary to some claims in the US press, I doubt a complaint for a crime as grave as rape would have been shelved, but it is highly probable that the case would have been handled in a much more discreet fashion, without any “perp walk”. Indeed, I suspect that a man of such stature would be given a much smoother treatment than the average man being arrested for a sexual offense, and that the case would have been followed at the top levels of the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior.

By the way, dear American friends, there is nothing to rejoice about VIPs being given the “perp walk” as though they were ordinary criminals. In pre-revolutionary America and France, one form of punishment was the “pillory”, where criminals would be exposed to the population on the public square; but at least the pillory was applied after conviction. Applying punishment before conviction seems like a travesty of justice. In short, “perp walks” should not exist, or maybe should be postponed to after conviction.

However, France is not one of these banana republics that the United States used to support in Central and South America. In particular, the president cannot give orders to justice (even though the government can exercise significant pressure). That's something that many Americans do not understand, for instance those that advised writing to the French president, or asked the US government to press its French counterparts, in the extradition case of Ira Einhorn, as though this would affect the decision of the French courts.

In short, Mr Cohen is partially right if he implies that in France, there is too much deference to the executive power; he is wrong if he claims that, culturally, the United States is more immune to conspiracy theories and covert government intervention than France.

After these very factual reminders, I would like Mr Cohen and his friends (I suppose they don't read blogs from academics such as myself, but nevertheless) to think of the following fiction: imagine that shortly before the Republican primaries prior to the 2000 election, George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk and possibly drugged driving when vacationing in France — a not implausible event given his documented alcoholism, to which he could have reverted when under stress. What would have been the reactions from Conservatives? I bet there would have been much comment about ungraceful French, French justice not respecting presumption of innocence, and so on...