A Look At The Franco-America Relationship – It’s Complicated

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The murders in Paris last Friday set off a series of actions to demonstrate everyone’s solidarity with the French People. A German musician drove 400 miles to play John Lennon’s “Imagine” on a piano outside the Bataclan concert hall where most of the victims were killed. Sydney Opera House, and other global landmarks were lit up in the French tricolor of Bleu, Blanc and Rouge.

In the UK, the Daily Mirror printed the words to the French National anthem so fans at a soccer match between England and France could sing along. In the US, New York’s Mayor attended a rally saying “Vive La France!”

The French Response After the 9/11 Attacks

I remember standing on my front doorstep in Queens on September 11 through about September 23, in 2001, and seeing the plume of smoke rising from where the World Trade Center stood. The world rallied to New York and America’s side, and I will always be grateful for the great big American flag that was displayed at the foot of the Eiffel Tower during that dreadful time.

Even my lousy French was up to the job of reading Le Monde’s editorial “Nous Sommes Tous Americains” – we are all Americans. I am not one to get sad about these things; my default emotion reaction is a Viking berserker kind of anger. Knowing that others are upset does really help, even with that.

Image Source: News 247

At the same time, I can recall a bunch of political hacks down in Washington, DC, livid that the French wouldn’t join America in its Attack on Iraq. So upset and childish were they that they passed a resolution demanding that the cafeteria in the US Congress relabel french fries as “Freedom Fries.”

My right-wing friends (yes, I have some) took the view that you should expect that kind of appeasement from “cheese eating surrender monkeys.” Is that anyway to treat your oldest ally?

There was even a book out a couple of years ago that argued (rather badly thanks to cherry-picked facts and rather woolly reasoning) that France was, in fact, America’s oldest enemy rather than its oldest ally.

Is There Antagonism Between France and The United States?

Of course, the French have a streak of anti-Americanism in their culture as well. This segment of French society believes that Americans are money hungry, uncultured, uneducated and violent to a ridiculous degree. 

At the same time, Hollywood, rock and roll, hip-hop and blue jeans are tres populaire in France. Just beyond the smoke plume I watched, standing in New York Harbor is a gift from the people of France to the people of the US – the Statue of Liberty. And if you have been to Brooklyn lately, just how many French people live there? So, if you had a page on Facebook for the US relationship with France, you’d have to check “it’s complicated.”

To my way of thinking the affinity and antagonism between France and America is very much like that between a couple of cousins in the same family. They have an incredible amount in common, so much so that they often forget about the similarities”


Image Source: Tackk

The sore points tend not to be genuine animosity but rather they stem from a sort of jealous rivalry. One cousin goes off to a great college and becomes an elected official, the other goes to a state school and builds a multi-million dollar business – that family dinner is always going to have a little tension running through the appetizer through to coffee and dessert. Who is the bigger success?

Once upon a time, France was the greatest power in the world. Most of Europe’s elite spoke French as a second language. French was actually spoken as a first language by the Russian nobility who thought the language of the Volga was uncouth. French fashions were copied everywhere. Some still believe French wine and food are the best in the world.

Personally, I’ve never read a better book than the Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. French philosophers and scientists changed the world; Louis Pasteur saved millions with his research.

Today, America is the sole superpower, and English is the language of business around the world because of it (Britain did help, to be fair, with its empire). There’s a McDonald’s everywhere, and Jay Z and Beyonce are on the air wherever you go. The Internet is the product of American technology, as is the iPhone. Turn on your TV, and odds are you can find something filmed in America somewhere on it.

The Complex Relationship Between France and the United States

The complex nature of this relationship goes back to the settlement of the Americas by Europe in the 1500s and 1600s.

The United States of America’s foundations are largely of British origin. The people who lived in the colonies that would become independent in 1776 thought of themselves as British. The language was English, the tea trade important, and the money was pounds, shillings and pence.

The French had their own colonies in the Americas. The British and French had holdings in the West Indies, and until 1759, they occupied Canada. The British took Canada during the French and Indian War, known as the Seven Years’ War outside the US. It was during this fight that a young officer named George Washington surrendered Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania to a French force.

Since the English and the French had been enemies for a few centuries, a certain amount of anti-French feeling came over on the Mayflower and other ships. Fighting the French in North America was just an extension of that.

The Grand Tour: The Origins of American Animosity Towards France

Image Source: Adam Matthew

However, there was another factor that started the complications – the Grand Tour. Starting in the 1660s, young men of means (and on occasion women with chaperons) would travel throughout Europe before settling down to whatever life they would have. Think of it as a Gap Year and you won’t be far off the mark.

Some young well-off Americans managed to make this trip as well, such as Ben Franklin.

The Grand Tour and other visits to France by British America’s elite developed a certain fascination with France, if not outright Francophilia. And paradoxically, here is where the first American-based dislike of the French as a people arises – out of America’s own inequality.

American society pretends to be classless (we’re all middle class – hardly), and sometimes that presumed equality rubs up against social reality. Having done the Grand Tour of Europe separated the very well off in America from everyone else – and that created some resentment and animosity not just toward those who had gone on the Tour but also toward Europe in general and France in particular. Being able to parse out Le Monde’s headline is deemed to be somehow unAmerican.

Why the French? Why not take the same view of Spain and Spanish? All things German? Why not complain about Italy, Poland, or any other European country? Why France?

To put it simply, none of these other cultures occupied a position that could get an American’s goat. Germany and Italy weren’t even countries until the 1870s; America was by then an emerging world power.

Spain’s heyday had come and gone by 1776, and the collapse of the Spanish empire was only a generation away. Madrid was simply not the draw that Paris was by the 18th century.

After American Independence, America And France Had A Long Series Of Conflicts

I would be so bold as to say that Americans felt superior to these other cultures – a young vibrant nation that was stepping onto the world stage where France and England were the great powers. Americans understood England because so much of their culture is English, and we beat the Redcoats to win independence.

Leaving culture aside, there is also some history of interests bumping into each other. After independence, America signed the Jay Treaty with Britain in 1794. It was largely a commercial treaty, but the French revolutionary government viewed it as a violation of the Alliance that was the basis of American independence. In 1796, France declined to accept America’s new top diplomat.

The Quasi-War

Image Source: Wikiwand

According to Historian Kennedy Hickman, in 1798, “President John Adams reported to Congress on the XYZ Affair. The previous year, in an attempt to prevent war, Adams sent a delegation to Paris to negotiate peace between the two nations. Upon arriving in France, the delegation was told by three French agents, referred to in reports as X, Y, and Z, that in order to speak to Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, they would have to pay a large bribe, provide a loan for the French war effort, and Adams would have to apologize for anti-French statements. Refusing to comply, the delegation departed and returned home.”

The Quasi-War followed, an undeclared war largely fought by French privateers against American merchant ships. “In late 1800, the independent operations of the US Navy and the British Royal Navy were able to force a reduction in the activities of French privateers and warships. This coupled with changing attitudes in the French revolutionary government, opened the door for renewed negotiations.”

“Signed on September 30, 1800, the Treaty of Mortefontaine ended hostilities between the US and France, as well as terminated all previous agreements and established trade ties between the nations. During the course of the fighting, the new US Navy captured 85 French privateers, while losing approximately 2,000 merchant vessels.”

French Interventions In Mexico And the Origins Of The Monroe Doctrine

The execution of Emperor Maximillian-Image Source: Wikiwand

Then, there was the Mexican adventure of Napoleon III in the 1860s. While America was busy with its Civil War, the liberal government of Benito Juarez in Mexico defaulted on its debts to European creditors. While Britain and Spain came to a settlement with Juarez, Napoleon III decided to use this as an excuse to create French holdings in Mexico, putting Austrian Archduke Maximilian on the throne of Mexico (after creating the throne for him).

On May 5, 1862, the Mexicans held off the French at the city of Puebla (hence, the holiday in Puebla of Cinco de Mayo). When the US finished its trouble with the traitors in the Confederate States, it reasserted the Monroe Doctrine (which says Europe needs to keep its nose out of the Americas – a doctrine that has no validity in international law and a cornerstone of US foreign policy for centuries).

Maximilian wound up in the hands of the Juarez government which executed him in 1867, and Napoleon III died in exile in 1873 after losing the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The affair didn’t grow into a huge issue because it failed, but you can see that if there had been a French colony set up in Mexico in the 1860 and 1870s, it would have radically influenced US-French relations, probably for the worse.

World War I and The Memory Of The Marquis Of Lafayette

Yet, when France and Britain had been fighting the Kaiser for a couple of years and getting nowhere on the Western Front, the US doughboys turned up. General Pershing stepped off the boat and announced, “Lafayette, we are here.”

The Marquis de Lafayette was a young French nobleman who had left the easy life in France to serve as George Washington’s aide de camp during the War of Independence. Indeed, Lafayette was the son George never had. Before Pershing, a number of Americans had joined the French army, and there was even an American aviation unit, the Escadrille Lafayette, flying against the Red Baron and a young Hermann Goering.

Paris, 1920: the Artistic and Intellectual Capital Of The World

American and European artist in Paris, 1920’s-Image Source: Museyon

In the 1920s, Paris blossomed as a paradise in the hearts and minds of countless American writers and artists. There was even a song that had as it’s hook, “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” To detail them all would be another essay entirely. Suffice it to say that Ernest Hemingway’s A Movable Feast covers people like Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

World War II: Operation Torch And The American Invasion Of French Africa

Then, there is a brief bit of history you didn’t learn in school, about the time during World War II that the US and Britain actually fought against French troops. Read that sentence again – I didn’t mistype it.

After the Nazis occupied France, leaving a small bit of unoccupied territory to Marshall Petain and his government in Vichy, the US and Britain were keen to liberate North Africa, especially the French territories of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia – governed by Vichy for Germany. Operation Torch in November 1942 saw US and British troops engaged in combat against French troops.

The Nazi occupation had given many Frenchmen a desire to prove themselves in combat, having lost so badly in 1940. Moreover, a great many believed that Britain was doomed, and that collaboration was the only way to preserve anything that resembled French culture. So, they fought their former allies. That said, Free French troops under De Gaulle were bleeding next to GI Joe in North Africa and beyond.

That was clearly overshadowed by D-Day and the liberation of France.

I was a student in London back in the 1980s, and going to France was a cheap weekend away. As a history buff, I wanted to visit the Normandy beaches, and spent one of the most amazing days of my life in a place called Sainte Mere Eglise – where elements of the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions parachuted in on June 6, 1944.

It seems like every American who visits there is personally credited with freeing France from the Nazis. I was shown around and given lunch (my new friends refused to let me pay). When I met a few old people and mentioned my uncle Harold had been in the 101st (though to the best of my knowledge not there on D-Day), I received some of the wettest kisses on the cheek from men needing shaves that I have ever had (granted, it’s a mercifully rare occurrence).

French and US Relations After the War: It’s Complicated But We are Family

Image Source: Delcampe

After the war, the French and Americans had a difficult relationship largely because De Gaulle was determined to demonstrate that France was not a nation America could ignore. Pulling out of NATO’s integrated command structure and developing a French atom bomb were just two examples of this. Moreover, the French effort to retake its territories in Indochina led directly to US helicopters evacuating embassy personnel from Saigon in 1975.

Naturally, there have been some postwar high points, too. When JFK went to France, his wife Jacqueline was a positive boon. Having studied at the Sorbonne when she was 20 (sort of a Grand Tour), her French was readily understood. When he gave a press conference in Paris in 1961, he started out by saying “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris, and I have enjoyed it.”

There was also some Obama-mania when Senator Obama visited France in 2008.

The admiration flows the other direction as well. In 1960, Charles De Gaulle received the highest accolade New York City can bestow, a ticker-tape parade through the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan. 

So, the Franco-American relationship is complicated to be sure. We get on each others’ nerves sometimes, and we occasionally export unsolicited and unwanted advice to one another. France has 246 different kinds of cheese as De Gaulle noted, but not one is Velveeta, a food-like, cheese-like substance that the American government insists must be labeled “Pasteurized Recipe Cheese Product.”

But when trouble comes, the differences melt away, our similarities come to the fore, and we are family.

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