The French And The Americans

Henry James’s now classic The American (1877), which some Wikipedia writer aptly calls “an uneasy combination of social comedy and melodrama,” is still worth a read. It is essentially a return to the mid-19th century. Long out of copyright, some time ago I found a “free” version on Kindle:

[Photo by me, 2018]

It is one of the first novels of its kind: the American adrift in Europe. It is also one of the novels that I realize now has most influenced me. I read it first as a teenager, in high school (I’d borrowed it from the library)… probably to escape at least temporarily from assigned reading of something I couldn’t stand else.

It revolves around “Christopher Newman,” a 30-something, post-Civil War rich businessman, touring Europe to get a different life perspective; and he’s also thinking maybe it’s time finally to get married. He ends up in Paris, and there are (of course) women – one particular woman eventually. There are also various relatives and friends, lots of personal complications and culture shock. The fundamentally decent, straightforward – so “American” that – and at times also rather naive “Christopher” seems also to spend much of his time frustrated, confused, or just shaking his head. You’d have to read it…

“Mr. Newman” was certainly not the first American in that position. Starting during the U.S. war for independence (1775-1783), Americans have often had something of an “awkward” relationship with France and the French. Early U.S. visitors (mostly young men) to France in the 1780s and 1790s arrived in the full knowledge of French support for U.S. independence, and grateful for it; but often found themselves feeling like the proverbial fish out of water:

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

However, the notion that French people generally “dislike” Americans is actually a relatively recent social phenomenon. In Henry James’s novel, there is no reference to such an attitude among the French, and the reason why is simple: it did not really exist. Yes, Americans may have been considered “frontiersmen,” or “money obsessed,” or “uncouth,” or “uncultured” – main aspects explored in James’s novel – but they were not generally disliked.

In comparison, Americans today would be familiar with an attitude like this man’s, voiced in the much more recent 1990s:

[Excerpt from Passports, on Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Why did he say that? Why the change? What happened?

“1940” happened, thatโ€™s what.

Looking toward Notre-Dame. Paris, France. [Photo by me, 1995.]

[Looking toward Notre-Dame. Paris, France. Photo by me, 1995.]

I wrote in a post back in 2016: โ€œThe idea that the French โ€˜dislike Americansโ€™ stems primarily from the Second World War and its aftermath, and is rooted in Americaโ€™s difficult post-war relationship with the French government under President Charles de Gaulle in the early 1960s…โ€

I offered that in response to a French university age woman who had spent time in the U.S., and who was also clearly exasperated by the whole stereotype and had posted on her (then) blog that she just didnโ€™t understand it. She, and all of her friends and family, she maintained, like Americans and the United States and always had. In fact, as far as she knew, she didn’t know any French who “disliked” America and Americans.

The geopolitical outlook of de Gaulle’s government developed from the fact France had been defeated by the Nazis in 1940. The United States had emerged shortly after as a “superpower” that just four years later created an “armada” such as the world had never before seen, which hurled ashore hundreds of thousands of well-equipped young men who provided the major muscle in driving the Nazi occupiers from France. The French army in exile, led by then General Charles de Gaulle (who had never accepted the 1940 defeat and fled the country to London), was part of that invasion and campaign too, but was only a small part of the overall force, far outnumbered by the British and (at least initially) even by the Canadians.

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

While the reviving French army by the end of the war in May 1945 occupied an entire stretch of the Allied front, the Germans had been driven out of France mostly by others – especially by the Americans. Given that reality, first as French prime minister (1944-46), and later especially as president (1959-1969), de Gaulle focused on what he considered France’s tarnished “national honor.” He bickered constantly with the U.S. and British governments into and throughout the 1960s, attempting to emphasize France’s independence, as well as its importance in the new NATO alliance and on the world stage.

And importantly, with the emergence of television and “immediate” news in the 1950s and early 1960s, de Gaulle decrying U.S. policies was reported seemingly nightly on U.S. television news programs in an era when the “7 PM” U.S. network news broadcasts drew MASSIVE audiences – far greater than now; this was the era of The Huntley-Brinkley Report and The CBS Evening News first with Douglas Edwards and then Walter Cronkite; they often helped DRIVE the national agenda. For much of a decade, de Gaulle – at times virtually a caricature of pomposity – and his government’s “unfriendly” (Americans felt) posturings were beamed many an evening into tens of millions of American living rooms. That endless “battering” had its personal relations cost: increasingly it appeared to Americans that French people – allowing for some exceptions, naturally – generally disliked them in a way other Europeans did not. (After all, Americans thought, most of them appeared to back this guy de Gaulle.) In the frosty atmosphere between the two governments, large numbers of American tourists – while overrunning places like London, Rome and Venice – were AVOIDING Paris and France by the middle of the 1960s.

In 1939, few in either France or in the U.S. would have predicted that could have become the case. Americans avoiding Paris? But American independence had been confirmed by the Treaty of Paris!

Thus “the French dislike Americans” stereotype was born. Once a stereotype takes hold, it is rarely altered easily. As we know, we live with that one to some extent still.

[Excerpt from Passports, on Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

What has not helped the situation since the 1960s is that in response to de Gaulle (and similarly noisy French nationalists), some Americans began resorting to sneering about how France had just “surrendered” to the Nazis “without firing a shot.” That sort of mocking became more and more common the longer the war receded into memory and still re-emerges with a vengeance anytime a major political disagreement appears between the countries. Usually the ones who voice it most loudly and stridently are media polemicists (who have often themselves never heard a shot fired in wartime anywhere).

During the Nazi German invasion of France in May-June 1940, the Nazi invaders suffered some 27,000 killed, 110,000 wounded and 18,000 missing (and most of those missing were dead) in only 43 days of actual combat – and most of those casualties were inflicted on them by the French army. Nazi Germany had not won “easily” and at little cost. Although a French defeat, those 43 days were not the Germans driving laughingly through the sunny French countryside that some Americans still seem determined to believe it was.

Interestingly, such taunting over the 1940 defeat was almost never engaged in post-war by American WWII veterans who had actually fought the Nazis in France during 1944-45. Moreover I have never read of such ridicule coming from any numbers of American former soldiers who had served alongside of French soldiers or Resistance forces. Far more common seemed the likes of this: In 1995, in Normandy I bumped into a former U.S. paratrooper who had dropped into the area on D-Day in 1944 and had eventually returned to retire there, saying to me that he LOVED the country and the people.

[Tourists at the Eiffel Tower. Photo by me, July 1996.]

For many years France has been the most visited country in the world. As we know, similar to the United States, it is a country and a people about which many foreigners have strong opinions. My experience is also that most of those with a negative view of France have never actually visited it… or they have been only to Paris briefly.

Paris is worth seeing of course; but in the correct mindset. Understand before arrival that it can often be as impersonal, rushed, and unpleasant as any other large city in the world; and there are going to be “unpleasant” people here and there. It is a working city, not a movie set.

Paris is important, but it is no more representative of the French overall than New York City is of Americans or London is of the British.

[Lorient harbor, Brittany. Photo by me, 2010.]

Unfortunately, even those Americans who do visit the country never really get to know any numbers of “ordinary” people there:

[Excerpt from Passports, on Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

For many Americans who do travel within France do so mostly on tours, and often understanding little French, and usually visiting mostly โ€œthe tourist places.” So most French who Americans do get to know reasonably well are usually French living in America. Having been to the U.S., those French too learn that stereotypes do indeed cut both ways:

[Excerpt from Passports, on Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

However, when we are also able to gather away from “the tourist places,” we can indeed also find ourselves surprised. An innocuous, friendly exchange of professional courtesy and respect one afternoon in the mid-1990s in retrospect would come to mean a lot more only a few years later. Some things we must indeed never forget:

[Excerpt from Passports, on Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

In short, over this horizon…

[Sunset, Soulac-sur-mer, France, over the Bay of Biscay, which eventually becomes the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by me, 2016.]

…is a distant America.

[Excerpt from Frontiers, on Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

Many of those looking your way across that huge ocean are as curious about you as you may be about them.

[Excerpt from Distances. On Kindle for iPad. Click to expand.]

No, they don’t dislike you. ๐Ÿ™‚

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