By Steven Hill, Montréal Review, April 2012
Are the French really so anti-American? The American and French relationship suffered an enormous rupture during the public quarrel at the United Nations over Iraq, and the subsequent U.S. invasion in Spring 2003. The transatlantic rift suddenly was wide and deep, as if some devilish power had sped up plate tectonics and rapidly yanked the two sides of the Atlantic in opposite directions.
Yet Americans who have lived in France for many years, and have watched the dance between the two transatlantic partners, qualify the spat as one between two old and indignant lovers who, in the memorable words of the gay cowboy lovers in the film Brokeback Mountain , wish they were “over each other.” One American, Meredith Wheeler, a former editorial writer for Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner and a producer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, who has been living in southwestern France for 15 years, told me how surprised she is by the affection and respect many French have toward the United States.
“There is a part of the French psyche that is very pro-American — particularly those who recall World War II and the American contribution to the liberation of France,” she says. As proof of that she points to the fact that the local veterans association — the anciens combattants — recently began inviting Meredith to carry the American flag at Armistice Day and military ceremonies in November and June, commemorating the end of World Wars I and II. At the request of the French parade marshal — himself a recipient of the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honor — she marches at the front of the parade dressed in formal parade attire, with the Stars and Stripes side by side with the French tricolor, leading ranks of national, regional and regimental French flags. No other nation’s flag — not even that of the United Kingdom — is accorded this honor of walking with the French flag; the UK flag bearer walks (rather grumpily) several steps behind. Alongside the French veterans displaying their medals and ribbons on their blue blazers and their red berets, Meredith wears white gloves and a tan military garrison hat, creased down the middle and slightly cocked, holding aloft the U.S. flag and occupying one of the most honored positions in the parade.
“Last August I was invited to take part in a ceremony in the mountains near Mazamet,” she says, “where the French resistance — the ‘maquis’ — were aided by a small group of American commandos who had parachuted in to help battle against Nazi occupation forces.” Two Americans were killed in the subsequent firefight with a German patrol on August 12th, 1944. Their names now appear on a granite marker near the site, along with several French war dead.
The guest of honor at the ceremony was the American widow of the commanding officer of the U.S. commandos. As part of the August ceremony, each name of the fallen was dramatically read aloud, and after each American name, an elderly veteran pronounced the phrase, ‘Mort pour la France’ – They Died for France.
“I found it incredibly moving,” says Meredith. “Remember, this is 60 years after the battle. After the ceremony, a middle-aged Frenchman approached me to express his good wishes. He brushed aside my embarrassed remarks and said: ‘We will never forget the Americans who came to France. That war wasn’t on their territory. They didn’t need to come — but they did.'”
Later Meredith was presented with a booklet carefully noting the exploits of the maquis and their American counterparts in this region, and all the events of August 12th, 1944 are recorded in scrupulous detail. One sentence of that account stood out. It read: Il fallait que l’on sache que les américans étaient là, en appui du Maquis — “One must always remember that the Americans were there, in support of the Maquis.”
“I wish those so quick to condemn the French for their lack of support for the Iraqi invasion could witness these events,” says Meredith, who is making a film about the maquis and the American heroes.
So the idea that the French, either the people or their leaders, are somehow ungrateful or forgetful of American heroics in World War II couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, in his speech before the U.N. opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, France’s foreign minister Dominique de Villepin began his oration by saying France “does not forget and knows everything it owes to the freedom fighters who came from America.” But that hardly soothed Americans during a rush to war.
As much as Americans wish to remind the French how much the U.S. military saved their hides in World War II, Americans quite easily forget how much the French saved General George Washington and his ragtag army. In fact, without the French it is quite likely that there would be no United States of America. When a French army of 6000 troops commanded by Count Rochambeau landed in the American colonies and joined Washington’s forces, General Washington felt compelled to express embarrassment at how undermanned and poorly equipped his army was. Washington believed, as did other colonial leaders, that by the summer of 1781 the resources of the country were exhausted and his Continental Army was on the verge of collapse.
Not only did the French provide badly needed reinforcements, but their military generals and strategists were far more experienced than Washington and his officers. It was the French who suggested a southern campaign against Britain’s Lord Cornwallis that eventually resulted in the decisive battle of Yorktown, Virginia. Washington was obsessed with attacking the British in New York, where they were virtually impregnable and where military scholars today agree his forces surely would have been annihilated. If the British had not intercepted letters of Washington in which he identified New York as his primary target, Washington may not have followed the sage French advice.
The Battle of Yorktown itself mostly was planned by the French strategists, not Washington. Lord Cornwallis and his troops were surrounded with no escape route, thanks to the French fleet commanded by Admiral François Joseph Paul Comte De Grasse. Yale historian Jonathan Dull called De Grasse’s victory over British Admiral Thomas Graves’s fleet, which was attempting to rescue Cornwallis’ forces, “the most important naval victory of the 18th century.” The Yorktown siege was essentially an exercise in military engineering, which was one of Washington’s weaknesses. Fortunately, the French army included the best military engineers in the world. Pulitzer Prize historian Joseph Ellis writes, “Though Washington was officially in command, the Yorktown siege was primarily a French operation. He was given the ceremonial honor of firing the first cannon shot against the British defenses…Most of the time, however, Washington only watched and tried to keep himself busy as the noose tightened around Cornwallis’s army.”
So the “Father of Our Country” learned at the knee of the French, and enjoyed considerable French support, including from the Marquis de Lafayette who had been made an American officer and became a shared hero of both countries. As part of their broader strategy to oppose the British empire, the French extended a helping hand to this motley, ragtag assemblage at a crucial moment. The French also were enamored with many of the first American leaders. Benjamin Franklin as ambassador to France was one of the world’s first multilateralists, adored in the salons of Paris and the court of King Louis XVI for his sharp wit, folksy charm and backwoodsman’s dress. Thomas Jefferson was invited to sit in France’s National Assembly during the writing of the French constitution. Ironically, America is one of the few western countries with which France has never been to war.
Indeed, it has been said that France and the United States quarrel not because they are so different but because they are so very much alike. Both nations share – rather uneasily – longstanding ambitions to lead the world, as well as overlapping tastes in the types of entertainment that people gravitate to. American films typically are the top draws in France. French teenagers download American rap to their iPods, and the entertainers most searched for on Google France usually are American stars like Lady Gaga and Britney Spears. French consumers are so enamored with American and English-speaking pop culture that the French government has had to decree that at least 40 percent of the songs played on the radio must be in French — a proscription that is routinely ignored. The French gave to America the inspiring gift and icon of the Statue of Liberty in the late 19th century. President De Gaulle supported America during the Cuban missile crisis, and reminded a joint session of Congress of the two countries’ history of shared values. One 2004 poll reported that 72% of the French had a favorable view of Americans, more even than in Britain (62%) or Spain (47%).
No, in certain ways the French and Americans are more alike than either care to admit. French author Jean-Francois Revel, who for several decades has been pinpricking his fellow Frenchman’s smugness, in his recent book L’Obsession anti-Americaine argues that French views of America, particularly in the media, often flourish at the expense of self-examination. He pointed out well before France’s November 2005 riots by minority youth that while a tenth of the workforce was out of work and young French Muslims isolated in suburban tower block ghettos, the French were delighted to expose American poverty, racism and ghetto life. America, in other words, serves to console France about its own failures by sustaining the myth that things are even worse in the U.S.
This of course should sound familiar to Americans, who frequently beat up on France, Germany and Italy too — the “old Europe” troika — and lately Greece and the other PIGS debtor countries, as a way of avoiding any serious examination of our own national shortcomings. Only two months before the French youth set the suburbs on fire and gave a wake up call to the world, Hurricane Katrina exposed the American fault lines of race and class.
When I ask Meredith if she is optimistic about the Franco-American relationship, she offers a bittersweet smile. “The Franco-American history has been long and complicated, filled with many highs and lows. At this point, it’s like a Rorschach test, with enough material there for anyone to see what they want to see.” But with her film, she hopes that a few Americans might at least learn about a true story of American soldiers’ heroism and the French appreciation of their sacrifice. ‘Mort pour la France.’