Best of Enemies

by John J. Miller on August 10, 2010

in Articles,Politics

  • Sumo

June 20, 2003



It seemed like a joke at first: A handful of restaurants changing the names of their French fries to “freedom fries,” a few bartenders pouring French wine down street drains and a chain of French-owned hotels lowering their tricolor flags. The craziest idea, appropriately enough, came from Congress, when Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, a Florida Republican, proposed exhuming the patriot graves of American soldiers buried in France and bringing them back to the U.S.

To France, however, the current American animosity is no laughing matter. French exports to the U.S. are falling faster than guillotines during the Reign of Terror. They dropped by 17% from February through April, when French President Jacques Chirac’s intransigence over Iraq was at its height. America’s paltry presence at this week’s Paris Air Show was more like an absence (as a French deconstructionist might say). What’s more, American tourism has tumbled by a quarter, costing the French economy nearly $1 billion so far this year in money Americans haven’t spent tipping rude waiters.

This is rather impressive for a boycott that has no formal sponsor. After all, the White House isn’t calling on citizens to quit drinking Evian water or driving on Michelin tires. Somehow a word-of-mouth movement has caught on and is causing the French government to think hard about how to respond.

The French Tourist Board took a first step when it asked Woody Allen to tell Americans that it’s time to get over the recent unpleasantness. “I would hope that now the two countries could put all that behind them and start to build on what really has been a great, great friendship,” says Mr. Allen in a promotional video. “I will not have to `freedom kiss’ my wife when all I want to do is French kiss her.” This was a mistake. Most Americans really don’t want to think about Allen so much as giving his wife a peck on the cheek.

Yet the French have stuck with this theme of “a great, great friendship.” Last week, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin met with American politicians and business leaders in Paris and handed out a 1781 letter by Benjamin Franklin celebrating the Franco-American alliance that achieved victory at Yorktown.

But the great, great friendship is really a myth, going right back to the period Mr. Raffarin seeks to glorify. What happened at Yorktown was the result of cold-blooded diplomacy. “It was a power struggle of the Old World [against the British], not a concern with America, that brought about the French intervention,” wrote the historian Barbara Tuchman. For three centuries, French actions toward America haven’t been marked by too much warmth or kindness.

Before the Revolution, American colonists spent years fighting the French and Indian Wars — so named because the French and Indians were their enemies, capable of exactly the kind of brutality depicted by James Fenimore Cooper in “The Last of the Mohicans.” After Yorktown, the French began double-dealing as soon as they thought they would benefit from it.

At the Treaty of Paris negotiations, the French crown secretly and successfully urged Britain to deny the colonists’ claims west of the Alleghenies. Relations were no better during the early days of the American republic. One of the first ministers France sent to the U.S. was Citizen Genet, a man who did everything he could to undermine President Washington’s determination to keep his country neutral in the war France had declared on Britain in 1793. A few years later the French foreign minister Talley-rand demanded a large bribe before he would meet with American diplomats in what became known as the XYZ Affair. This flap led to a series of naval skirmishes — the first war waged by the U.S. against anybody.

Andrew Jackson nearly declared war on France in the 1830s when Paris failed to pay reparations for its assaults on American shipping. During the Civil War, Napoleon III looked for ways to aid the Confederacy and went so far as to install a puppet monarch in Mexico whose main purpose was to keep the U.S. from extending its influence into Latin America and the Caribbean.

The 20th century was little better. The real struggle at the Versailles Peace Conference ending World War I wasn’t between the Allies and the Central Powers but between the U.S. and France, which insisted on onerous punishments for Germany. Twenty-five years later a young French journalist, Hubert Beuve-May, wrote on the eve of D-Day: “The Americans constitute a real danger for France.” He went on to found and edit Le Monde, France’s most important newspaper and a proud bastion of anti-Americanism ever since.

The Cold War was no improvement. In 1966, France pulled out of NATO. In 1986, as a kind of dress rehearsal for its latest recalcitrance, it refused to let American jets fly over its territory on their way to attacking Libya in retaliation for Gadhafi-sponsored terrorism.

But what about the cultural side of the French “alliance”? Surely deep affinities exist, whatever the clashes of statesmen and kings. It is true that Gertrude Stein had settled in Paris in the 1920s and that Hemingway came to visit her there, along with any number of expatriate writers and intellectuals. What this “lost generation” found, unfortunately, was yet another myth — of alienated artistic “authenticity.” For years now it has drawn hordes of college students and misguided romantics to Paris, where they put on black turtlenecks, smoke Gauloise cigarettes and look for the next Picasso. Jean-Paul Sartre added to the myth a couple of decades later, making authenticity a whole philosophy of life even as he agitated for the Communist Party.

And then there is Michel Foucault, required reading these days for American students who aspire to “understand” the true “power relations” that “oppress society.” He, too, was a product of the French intellectual milieu, if milieu is the right word. Of such bogus attractions, prodded along by ponderous French films, is so much French tourism made.

The recent disagreement over Iraq is often viewed as an ugly blemish on an otherwise beautiful friendship. But it’s more accurate to see France acting in a predictable pattern of high-handed obstruction and obfuscation. As France tries to repair the damage it has done to its image in the U.S., the rest of us are left to wonder: Why didn’t somebody think of a boycott sooner?

Mr. Miller is a writer for National Review.

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