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The French, History’s All-Time Losers?

The French excel when it comes to patisserie and haute couture, but are supposedly terrible in warfare with lily-livered soldiers going from one defeat to the next. This cliché has been peddled in the United States since the Wehrmacht entered Paris on June 14, 1940, and the French army surrendered eight days later.

Bonjourrrrr, you cheese-eating surrender monkeys!” This is how Groundskeeper Willie, asked to work as a French teacher, welcomes his students in a 1995 episode of The Simpsons. The satirical reference to France’s defeat in 1940 went down in history. It was popularized by conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg and repeated ad infinitum by French-bashing pundits during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

 


Now a go-to trope for American Francophobes, the 1940 surrender resurfaces with every new diplomatic quarrel between our two countries. It has even become the basis for a number of jokes. “How do you confuse a French soldier? Give them a rifle and ask them to shoot it.” Others include the more modern “Why don’t Mastercard and Visa work in France? Because the French don’t know how to charge.” And of course, “What do you call a French person killed defending their country? No one knows, it’s never happened.”

Eighty years after the events, France is continuing to pay the price for this defeat in the American collective imagination. “The Americans expected the French army, as they had in the Great War, to be able to stop the Germans,” says U.S. historian Philip Nord, professor at Princeton and the author of a book about France in 1940. “The United States abdicated its responsibilities in the face of the rise of Hitler in the 1930s. The position was: France would do the fighting and we wouldn’t have to do anything but supply armament.”

The End of American Innocence

The Germans entered Paris, which had been declared an “open city” by the exiled government, and captured the French capital without firing a single shot. This put an end to the feeling of security that still prevailed in the United States. The trauma of this moment serves as a backdrop to the movie Casablanca, which is set in 1941. Before long, the Americans found themselves involved in the conflict. “We’re going to have to go and save those cheese-eating surrender monkeys again,” a U.S. general supposedly exclaimed. A volley of insults that went on to inspire a writer at The Simpsons fifty years later.

The anecdote may be apocryphal, but it illustrates a key part of French-American relations. The United States has sent the armed forces to help its oldest ally on two occasions. According to some Americans, this sacrifice merits eternal gratitude and blind devotion. When Jacques Chirac refused to follow George W. Bush into Iraq, the New York Post published a front page photo of American graves in Normandy with the headline: “They died for France but France has forgotten.” This emotional blackmail was taken up by Donald Trump when Emmanuel Macron announced his desire to create a European army in 2018. The POTUS tweeted: “How did that work out for France [in the two world wars]? They were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along.”

According to this paternalistic stance, the French are helpless and the Americans are liberating warriors. This is the basis for U.S. historian Robert Kagan’s 2003 book Of Paradise and Power, in which he states that Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus. “What’s built into that is not just that Americans are into war and Europeans are into love,” says Philip Nord, “but that Americans are men and Europeans are women.”

Uncle Sam’s Complex

This gendered vision of transatlantic relations and World War II throws light on a far older sentiment. “Americans have an inferiority complex vis-à-vis French culture,” says Philip Nord. “France is the country of the Louvre, the Mona Lisa, and we’re just a bunch of country bumpkins. But at least we know how to fight. Putting down Europeans — and the French in particular — is a way to declare our independence vis-à-vis continental culture.”

Americans will always have Paris and the French will always be the losers of 1940. But this logic forgets the 60 to 90,000 soldiers killed during the Battle of France and the other victories of the French army, starting with those won by the Free French Forces led by General de Gaulle. Remember, the first tanks that entered Paris in August 1944 were not flying the Stars and Stripes, but the Lorraine Cross!


Article published in the June 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

  • Who needs an enemy when you have allies who save you from trouble just to gain the right to spit in your eye? And spit on the graves too. As you point out, between 60 and 90 000 French army casualties during the +/- 45 days of the campaign of France, that’s quite heavy losses for an army of cowards. Not to mention the 1.5 million French soldiers fallen during WWI. That is actually more in 4 years than the total casualties of the US army during the whole 20th century. Ignorance can be as insulting as contempt…

  • I have to correct my fellow Americans all the time. It’s not just the French. They continually bash Montgomery and the Brits. Others like the Canadians, Anzacs, other alliés are either bashed or more likely ignored. My English uncles who were D-Day vets always expressed amazement at the American leadership and willingness to sacrifice their soldiers. My Canadian relatives always said they were not so worried about being killed by the Germans but tried to stay away from Americans as you had a higher probability of being killed by friendly fire. And on it goes.

  • This bigoted view of France from the United States drives me crazy, and it shows a complete lack of knowledge of what the French went through during World War One. You can’t understand the Second War without knowing what happened with the First. I’ve made a movie on the Lafayette Escadrille just to combat that ridiculous notion held by some many Americans. While we were in France filming, the French welcomed us with open arms. To them, the horror of WWI happened ten years ago instead of 100. And they are very aware of how America came to the aid of its oldest ally.

  • Remark: I am a French writer passionate about history. I just finished writing a historical novel about the American War of Independence. Please, forgive my impertinence, but the victory of Yorktown was possible only by the French intervention of the army of General de Rochambeau and the fleet of Admiral de Grasse.

  • My uncles were in the war in 1944. One landed in Normandy. He still stays in touch/visits the family he met after landing. The other uncle was killed in action. He was shot down in a B-17 and captured. He died of his wounds… France has been an ally of the United States. We do not ever forget France!
    Bien merci,
    John

  • As we baby boomers die off so will much of this rhetoric about the French. Unfortunately, the current generations are clueless to any history.

  • We Americans must always remember this: Our oldest alliance is with France, who backed our nascent, unsure ambition to become a free republic. For this we are grateful, always. As a wise man once said: “You can make new friends, but you can’t make old friends.”

  • Dommage que la France ait été si mal gouvernée dans les années avant la Deuxième Guerre mondiale. Pourtant tous les signaux étaient là, surtout depuis la réoccupation de la Rhénanie par l’Allemagne en 1936. Les vrais lâches sont les dirigeants pacifistes et aveugles de la France qui ne se sont pas préparés à la guerre. Quant aux Américains, ils n’ont aucunement à traiter les Français de pleutres. Ils ont aussi subi en 1975 une défaite peu honorable aux mains du Vietcong, un peuple au moins 10 fois moins nombreux qu’eux.

    It’s unfortunate that France was so ill-governed in the years before the Second World War. In spite of the facts that everything announced an upcoming war with the Nazis, especially since the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 by the Nazi army. The real cowards are the pacifist and blind leaders of the French republic in the 1930s who did not prepare for war. As for the Americans, they have no reason for bashing the French for the 1940 débâcle. They also have endured a less than honorable defeat at the hands of the Vietcong in 1975, a people at least 10 times smaller than that of the US.

  • As a public high school teacher (we discussed my question in the webinar yesterday) I can attest to the fact that American teenagers, especially boys, still carry with them these negative stereotypes of the French. In American culture today we have an almost religious reverence for our military that seems to have developed to an extreme during the past 25 years. So they boys pick these ideas up in their history classes, virtual game spaces, and through other media. One of my strategies has always been to hit these ideas head on with a class discussion. I am so thrilled to have this article to help support my efforts. One thing that always comes out in class, there are many positive stereotypes of the French as well.

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