Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the French I took
But I do know that I love you
And I know that if you love me too
What a wonderful world this would be
—Sam Cooke, “What a Wonderful World”
If only things were as simple as that. Feeling uncreative and inspired by the recent French election for president that returned a victory for President Sarkozy, I’ve decided to write some largely disconnected historical oddities that tug at the chains of some shibboleths about many Americans’ favorite country to hate—France. (Lacking a knee-jerk hatred of France, I often come across as a francophile, which simply ain’t true. I just believe in “fair and balanced” and find x-ophobia and assorted other tribalisms juvenile, akin, perhaps, to the average teenage girl’s “hatred” of her parents. This will not make me more popular with friends who like being x-ophobes but screw ’em.) Sarkozy’s election is truly a big thing, since he’s really not part of the traditional political elite and, furthermore, is the son of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant. Lest we forget, France was the center of European antisemitism before Deutschland stole that dubious mantle in the 1930s. Only time will tell….
The French Bailed Us Out in the Revolution Yes, this is true (doubtless in this day and age, many Americans forget or, even worse, never did know), and there were many Frenchmen, the Marquis de Lafayette being the most famous example, who served in or alongside the Continental Army. Lafayette, in case you forgot your high school history, was among Washington’s most successful tactical commanders along with Horatio Gates and, of course, Benedict Arnold* (before he turned his coat). The victory at Yorktown depended greatly on the French Navy having defeated the British Navy in the Battle of the Chesapeake (the only major defeat of the Royal Navy) just prior and imposing a blockade on Yorktown’s sea access. While many Americans had a warm fuzzy about France, the French crown, along with the Spanish and Dutch, supported revolution in America primarily to stick it to their rival Great Britain, who had defeated France in what is commonly referred to in the USA as the French and Indian War and in Europe as the Seven Years’ War. In truth it was the first globalized “world” war. In other words, from their perspective it was a good old fashioned proxy war akin to many bankrolled by the Soviet Union and the USA in the Cold War. Many of the Frenchmen who served in America went home radicalized and contributed directly to the French Revolution, so the French crown didn’t come out so well in the bargain, especially in 1791. By the 1790s, the USA and France were fighting an undeclared naval war.
Since much of our current relationship with France is loaded by memories World War II and the decade afterwards, here are a few entertaining moments:
The French Did Fight in 1940 While the defeat of France in the 1940 invasion is something the German Army is justly known for, the common French solider certainly did fight—about 100,000 of them died in roughly one month’s fighting, which simply doesn’t happen if you just throw in the towel. The Germans got some lucky breaks at crucial points and things could have been VERY different if a few relatively small battles had gone otherwise. Still, as Louis Pasteur said, “chance favors the prepared mind” and the French generals of early World War II were certainly not prepared minds, unlike Rommel and Guderian.
The First Enemy The US Army Fought in Europe Was Not the Germans In fact, the first large-scale engagements occurred during Operation Torch in November 1942, where the US Army fought some fairly brief but bloody engagements with Vichy forces in Casablanca and Algiers. Naturally this was largely covered up afterwards….
112 Gripes About the French is an interesting read about problems American soldiers had getting along with the French in 1945 (thanks to AOC for the link to this a long time ago). Here is a story about it and a bit of digging turned up an HTML version (sadly full of typos) of it here.
The French Got Us Into Vietnam True enough, though we really dropped the ball in the 1940s when the colonial powers waved the red flag of communism in front of us and we squandered the ability to deal with nationalist leaders like Ho Chi Minh, basically giving them right into the arms of the Soviet Union. How did we do this? By backing colonialism in the post-World War II time as opposed to, say, indicating that most of the colonies needed to be put on a timetable for independence, much like we responsibly did with the Philippines before the war. Whatever else you might say, we sure can’t blame the French for our numerous sins of the 1960s, e.g., William Westmoreland’s ineptness as a commander in the crucial years of 1964-1968.
Now to more modern times:
The French Are Demographically Doomed. While it’s certainly the case that they have economic issues and serious social unrest (not dissimilar, perhaps, to problems the US had in the 60s through 80s), one thing the French don’t have is a demographic crisis like the rest of Europe, who are in for a rough time indeed as they literally run out of young people over the next few decades. Their Total Fertility Rate—the average number of children born per woman over her fertile lifetime—of 2.0 is only slightly smaller than the USA value of 2.1. This is a hair under replacement level. And, no, it’s not just immigrants having kids, though they do have a higher birth rate, much like immigrants in the USA. By contrast, the UK has a 1.7 and Germany has a 1.4. Very little compares to Russia, though, with both a TFR of 1.4 and a giant death rate, though I guess Japan’s downright amazing TFR of 1.2 might. These numbers all come from the CIA World Fact Book, rounded to one decimal place. This is a compendium of open source material on countries; TFR comes from the Census Bureau. So if they can get their economy jump-started, at least they’ve got enough people, many of whom are quite well-educated, to fill the spots. Obviously losing the sclerotic leadership is a must. (We should also not forget that our own employment numbers are artificially inflated by the large number of prisoners, who aren’t counted as unemployed.)
Now for food:
The French Did Not Invent French Fries The term french fries comes from “french-cut” which refers to slicing the long way. The french fried potatoes we all know and love were invented in Belgium, from what I understand. Freedom fries, on the other hand, were brought to us as a publicity stunt by former Rep. Bob Ney (R.-Ohio), who’s now in the clink for giving Jack Abramoff massages with happy endings.
McDonald’s Does Good Business in France See here. It seems that lots of Royales with Cheese get sold there. (Segolene Royale might have sold better avec du fromage.) Per capita, McDonald’s does better in France than in the USA…. Ah, the irony.
*Several days ago, when I was in the barbershop, they had Rush Limbaugh on because the cable TV was down and the traditional Price is Right was unavailable. Personally, Rush is a nitwit, but he was proving his general ignorance (or pandering to his sycophantic listeners’) by comparing Harry Reid to Benedict Arnold. Now one can complain about Harry Reid’s loose lips and disagree with his leadership or policy positions, but he sure isn’t a Benedict Arnold: one of the single most highly successful generals of his age and quite possibly the savior of the Revolution at the Battle of Saratoga. Alas his ambition and resentment got the better of him and he turned his coat. Suffice it to say, Arnold is a figure straight out of another time and has more in common with the likes of Alcibiades or some Byzantine general than a hack pol like Harry Reid.