Wayne O'Leary

The French Connection

They're back! Just when you thought it was safe to start calling "freedom fries" French fries once more, the anti-Gallic thought police are back on the job, avidly pursuing those "cheese-eating surrender monkeys." The American right's childish but recurrent infatuation with French bashing, quiescent for a time after the Iraq invasion, has returned with a vengeance. This time, it has an intellectual twist.

Books (yes, books!) are being written recounting our purportedly harmful interactions with France over the years and denigrating the historic French-American friendship. The titles tell it all. There is The French Betrayal of America by Kenneth R. Timmerman [Crown Forum, 2004], a journalistic "exposé" of France's supposed efforts to undermine the US war on terror; and Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France by John J. Miller and Mark Molesky [Doubleday, 2004], a very selective survey aimed at proving the French have always been obstructionist rivals rather than true allies.

The Timmerman book claims to show the corrupt, deceitful inclination of the French and their consistent efforts to frustrate American Mideast policy. Motivated by a desire to trade arms and nuclear technology for Iraqi oil, Timmerman writes, France has always been, at heart, a supporter of Saddam Hussein.

France's economic investment in prewar Iraq is well known, of course. What Timmerman fails to acknowledge, however, is that the US, Iraq's ally and patron during the 1980s, also had designs on Iraqi oil and also supplied arms to Saddam. In the latest Wilson Quarterly, eminent diplomatic historian Andrew J. Bacevich provides chapter and verse on the Reagan administration's military support of the Ba'athist dictator during the Iran-Iraq War, as well as its efforts to establish him as a regional proxy in the Persian Gulf.

Timmerman's belief that the French, who unforgivably did what we did and not what we said, cannot be trusted is reinforced by the Miller and Molesky assertion that they never could be trusted. To "prove" this assertion, they start with the dim colonial past, citing frontier massacres of Americans in the French and Indian wars of the 18th century.

Continuing on in this vein, Miller and Molesky distort most of what follows, eventually going so far as to blame the French indirectly for, among other things, the rise of fascism and the necessity of America's involvement in the European theater of World War II. Forced to review this semi-fictional account of 300 years of sinfulness, the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs termed it "shoddy and biased."

The scurrilous nature of these one-sided tracts -- their stereotypical characterizations border on ethnic hatred -- is unsurprising given the sources. Kenneth Timmerman, a dependable conservative flack, is notable for penning Shakedown, a salacious profile of Jesse Jackson as nothing more than a con man. John Miller, co-author of Our Oldest Enemy, is a national political reporter for the right-wing National Review. And what is France's real crime in the eyes of these conservative authors? It failed to support George W. Bush's incursion into Iraq. More than that, it led the international opposition to it.

Other governments opposed the Iraq invasion as well, including those of Germany and Russia. And virtually the entire population of Western Europe rejected it. So why the particularly venomous reaction to French policy, especially from the right of the political spectrum?

Largely, it's ideological. France maintains a generous welfare state, has been known to elect democratic socialists from time to time and has had the temerity to offer an alternative economic model to the world that is antithetical to corporate America's vision of unregulated free-market globalization; conservative columnist Robert D. Novak calls it an "anti-capitalist" country.

Then, too, the French are admittedly prone to overly celebrate the virtues of their culture, which in theory values secular intellectualism and a relaxed lifestyle over striving, uptight Anglo-American materialism. This plays into certain cherished American beliefs about the French: that they're indolent, effete, haughty and proud, and that they condescend toward regular, plainspeaking, God-fearing heartland folk.

Memories of prominent figures like the insufferable Charles de Gaulle haven't helped this image. Nevertheless, when the culture warriors of the right attempt to spread an intellectual gloss over their selective xenophobia, peddling historical lies and unfairly savaging the reputation of a valued, if occasionally flawed, ally of long standing, it's past time to set the record straight.

In the first place, the United States of America would simply not exist without France's help in the Revolutionary War, as the Founders plainly recognized. In 1778, Thomas Jefferson (a lifelong admirer of the French, by the way) wrote that doubts about the eventual success of the revolutionary project had been "totally removed by the interposition of France and the generous alliance she had entered into with us." Three years later, Jefferson was proven correct when French forces, including an expeditionary army and a blockading naval fleet, enabled Washington to win the war's decisive battle at Yorktown, Va.

In the more recent past, the French have been accused of inherently lacking the stomach for a fight and hiding behind diplomacy. Tell that to the 1.4 million French dead of World War I, 12 times the number of American fatalities. Even in World War II, France's casualties approximately equalled those of the US -- this in a country with one-fifth our population. Add in General Dwight D. Eisenhower's observation that, during the post-Normandy invasion of Europe, the French resistance, which suffered losses in the tens of thousands battling the Nazis, was worth 15 regular army divisions. These same French resistance fighters rescued, at great risk, 6,000 downed Allied flyers, including Americans, and arranged for their escape.

There are many reasons why France opposed the Bush administration in Iraq, some principled and some self-interested. But, fundamentally, a country that bled so much during two world conflicts is bound to have a highly developed sense of the cost and ultimate futility of war. The French reluctance to accept armed hostilities as the very first policy option is not only understandable, it's commonsensical. That's a lesson Americans are now learning the hard way.

(Those who would like to know something about the real character of France, as opposed to the cartoonish caricature being presented on this side of the Atlantic by historical revisionists of the right, might examine another recent book, Resistance and Betrayal: The Death and Life of the Greatest Hero of the French Resistance by Patrick Marnham [Random House, 2002]. It tells the story of Jean Moulin, who attempted to unite and direct the competing interests of groups and leaders of the French Resistance before he was captured by the Gestapo in June 1943.)

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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