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.