Living With A Legacy

Emma has returned from a summer in Charleston, South Carolina. She has written various posts detailing how she’d had a wonderful time. We’ve been there, too; Charleston is definitely a gorgeous city.

A street, Charleston, South Carolina. [Photo by me, 2014.]
A street, Charleston, South Carolina. [Photo by me, 2014.]
Now, she tackles THAT question:

I think this is one of the things I’ve heard the most when I was in the U.S. : French people don’t like Americans. Well, let me tell you something. THIS IS NOT TRUE. I’m French, I’ve spent all of my 21 years of life in France, and I have never heard more than two or three persons maybe saying that they didn’t like Americans…

This issue is always hovering around out there. It has been a source for a great deal of literature as well as for uncounted plots in movies and television episodes. As an American who has spent a lot of time in France since, uh, the 1980s (yes, good grief, I’m now THAT old!), and read tons of Franco-American history, I’d like to take a crack at this one briefly. 🙂

The idea that the French “hate Americans” stems primarily from the Second World War and its aftermath, and is rooted in America’s difficult post-war relationship with the French government under President Charles de Gaulle in the early 1960s.

Let me explain.

France was defeated by the Nazis in 1940. De Gaulle – a minor general – took the spotlight when he escaped to Britain and declared himself leader of a “Free France” that was opposed to Nazi occupation and would fight on. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, desperate to keep at least some of France fighting, and Britain, backed him.

During the war, de Gaulle – inflexible, uncompromising, impossible to manage – created all sorts of “troubles” for Churchill and Britain, as well as for the United States after the U.S. entered the war. Although pleased he was an ally, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt believed without evidence to the contrary he could not consider de Gaulle any more “legitimate” as a French leader than the French Nazi collaborators. FDR believed France could not have any official “leader” until the French were free to elect one after the war.

De Gaulle never forgot that FDR had questioned his representing fighting France at its darkest hour. He insisted that France was an equal in the battle with Nazism. To him, France was not an “occupied” country, but was still fighting and he was leading that fight.

As a result (regardless of what FDR thought) “legitimacy” slowly flowed de Gaulle’s way. No other French general or politician was as clean as he was when it came to resisting the Nazis. (If any were, they were stuck in occupied France, or imprisoned in France or Germany.) The Allies found after a time that they had little choice but to defer to de Gaulle as “France’s voice” because, frankly, there was really no one else.

So ultimately due, de Gaulle believed, to his singular leadership and iron determination to maintain France’s equality with Britain and the U.S.A., he had been instrumental in guiding France to a “resurrection” as a great power in 1944-1945. Although, uh, yes, with some help from the Americans and British; and he was aware of that, he said. 😉 In mid-1944, he became Chairman of the Provisional Government of France, so from then on there was no doubt he did have legitimate political authority.

The U.S., which contributed by far the largest number of troops to the liberation of western Europe, including France, and found itself leading the post-war new NATO alliance, ran head on into de Gaulle’s ongoing determination to continue to rebuild what he perceived as France’s national honor. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were the presidents most on the receiving end. During the 1960s, de Gaulle withdrew France’s military from NATO’s integrated command structure (forcing NATO to shift its headquarters from Paris to where it is today, Brussels) mostly because – de Gaulle believed – being in NATO meant France could not control nuclear weapons that may have been on France’s soil. He also demanded NATO close its military bases in France, asserting sovereign France could not have foreign forces on its soil. (In reply, Americans darkly noted, “Does that include the ones in the military cemeteries too?” or “He didn’t mind them landing on June 6, 1944!”)

Bastille Day parade, Paris, July 1995. [Photo by me.]
Bastille Day parade, Paris, July 1995. [Photo by me.]

And there was more. Mostly, it was symbolic; but symbolism meant a great deal to de Gaulle. Despite the Jackie Kennedy in Paris “glamour,” matters grew so frosty between the French and the American governments by 1965 that American tourists, seeing in media what was going on, actually stayed away from France in large numbers that summer. De Gaulle had become the core image of “postwar France” in the American mind: argumentative, pompous, arrogant, disdainful, ungrateful (they felt for the liberation and the dead Americans on French soil), and worst of all seemed to have some fundamental “problem” with the U.S.

He was also all too easy to caricature in political cartoons, and was a walking bullseye for U.S. comedians. For example, on a famous 1962 U.S. comedy record that sold a gazillion copies, at a meeting of “world leaders” at the White House presided over by “President Kennedy,” the President announces that rather than a formal lunch he wants to order out for a delivery of deli sandwiches. The President says he’s going to have peanut butter and jelly, and “a side order of coleslaw, and a hot fudge sundae.” In response “De Gaulle” blurts out, “Yuck,” and in a haughty French accent follows by snootily demanding, “I would like to have dove, under glass.”

Whatever one thought of him, de Gaulle was a larger-than-life figure who was not anti-American as much as pro-French. He was in a cabinet meeting when word of Kennedy’s assassination was rushed in. In the stunned room, he stood up and announced that Kennedy was a great man who loved his country.

Greatness in a leader and love of country were what de Gaulle was fundamentally about. A colossus of French politics for nearly two generations, his worldview was unsurprisingly taken as “gospel” by many outsiders as being synonymous with that of “the French.” Conflating the two led to a (mistaken) belief among Americans that de Gaulle hated the U.S.A. and therefore ordinary French people (millions of whom had voted for him, of course) also hated Americans, too.

The beach stretch not far from La Madeleine, known since June 6, 1944 as
The beach stretch not far from La Madeleine, known since June 6, 1944 as “Utah Beach,” in Normandy, France. [Photo by me, 1995.]

That (misplaced) Americans’ view of the French hasn’t ever receded fully. (And it becomes more pronounced whenever the two governments find themselves differing over policy. Such as over Iraq in 2002-2003.) Americans who have never been to France, but have come of age since the 1960s, have absorbed that (inaccurate) idea. It has become ingrained in American culture as a “truth.”

Indeed, many who believe it may never even have heard of de Gaulle – other than as a name on a Paris airport. Yet before they even walk off the plane for the first time, many Americans who casually visit France no doubt do believe themselves essentially disliked by the French. Because of that, any trivial misunderstanding in a restaurant, any awkward interaction on a street, any French frown, or even a French smile that is somehow deemed “insincere,” is taken as further evidence of their being “hated.” Yes, they may allow for it – if they didn’t, why did they visit the country in the first place? – and even laugh it off, but it’s always an uncomfortable feeling that’s simply there.

Given the perpetual reality of travel, in visiting most any country (and especially a large city, such as Paris) we will probably bump into less than pleasant people at times. So it is hard to see how that old perception of the French as structurally “hating” Americans can ever be fully “undone” in the American cultural mindset anytime soon.

The bottom line is if you are about to visit France (especially for the first time) as an American, forget all that I just wrote above and simply enjoy yourself and don’t worry about it.

If you aren’t lucky enough to be flying to France today, have a good day wherever else you are in the world. 🙂

UPDATE: Emma now has a new blog: Glitters and Roses.

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