How did Americans go, in the mind of the French, from gum-chewing liberators to Coke-swilling invaders? A U.S. historian and a French cheesemonger examined this transformation in a book published this summer.
During the Liberation, American GIs used calvados brandy to fuel their Zippo lighters. In 1948, the French communist party called for a boycott of the American soda giant, accusing it of “Coca-colonization.” And more recently, sales of French cognac Courvoisier have shot up thanks to… an American rapper! In France more than anywhere else, both history and stories are often recounted and discussed over a meal. In A Bite-Sized History of France: Gastronomic Tales of Revolution, War, and Enlightenment, U.S. historian Jeni Mitchell and French cheesemonger Stéphane Hénaut analyze the history of France from the Gallo-Roman era to the current day across 52 chronological, gastronomical chapters. Accompanied by maps, paintings, and caricatures, this dense book is brimming with anecdotes as surprising as they are appetizing!
With the permission of The New Press, we reprinted below an excerpt from Chapter 51, “France and the United States: From Liberation to Exasperation.”
The liberation of France began on June 6, 1944, when an Allied force of more than 150,000 American, British, and Canadian troops invaded the northern shores of Normandy. Most French people were happy to see the Germans driven out and grateful to the Allied soldiers who arrived in their place bearing food, coffee, cigarettes, and other staples not enjoyed for years. Scenes of ecstatic crowds welcoming Allied forces with cheers and embraces established an iconic template of liberation. The cities and towns of France savored their restored sovereignty, even as they counted the terrible costs of the offensive that brought it about.
D-Day has remained an emotionally resonant event on both sides of the Atlantic. Every year, millions of tourists visit the landing sites and nearby towns, which are dotted with museums, memorials, and the hauntingly enormous graveyards of the fallen. Most of these sites lie within the French département of Calvados, home to four of the five D-Day landing beaches (Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword). As the landing forces moved inland, they encountered the small towns and villages of rural Normandy, and their interactions with the locals make for particularly interesting reading in the many war memoirs from that time.
One Normandy specialty comes in for special mention in many remembrances: the fiery apple cider brandy also named Calvados. It was historically called eau-de-vie de cidre, indicating that it was a distillation of the local apple cider, a tradition that appears to have begun in the sixteenth century. Proper Calvados is aged for a minimum of two years in oak barrels, taking on a golden-lit hue and smoother flavor. American troops took a great liking to both cider and Calvados, although they had to be careful with the latter given its potency (it is usually around 85 proof). Rumor had it that Calvados could be used to fuel the GIs’ cigarette lighters, a reasonable enough suspicion given that in both world wars, armies had requisitioned Calvados for use in the armaments industry. It was this mistreatment of their beloved brandy that drove Calvados producers to seek an AOC for their product, which was granted in 1942, thus preserving the brandy for its originally intended purpose.
Unfortunately, the celebratory mood and newfound bonhomie did not last very long. Even in the early weeks of liberation, some American forces received less friendly welcomes, and American military commanders became exasperated with their French counterparts. In 1945, the U.S. military published an extraordinary booklet for American soldiers stationed in France, titled 112 Gripes About the French. It lists a fascinating range of common complaints from servicemen — the French are ungrateful, arrogant, cowardly, too cynical, too dirty, too garlic-scented, and so on — and offers robust rebuttals to each one, reminding Americans not only of the extreme deprivations of occupation but of France’s historical contributions to world civilization. An entire section is devoted to debunking the idea that the apparently more efficient, cleaner, and braver Germans would be more natural allies for America, an indication that even at this early date, trouble was brewing for postwar relations. Interestingly, there are no gripes about French food, except that soldiers were not being offered enough of it.
After the German surrender in May 1945, a new era of Franco-American prickliness ensued, as the challenges of recovery and the emergence of Cold War politics complicated the relationship across many realms. One of the most visible was the gastronomic, which took on an exaggerated symbolic importance as political tempers frayed, resulting in periodic spats and controversies.
One of the earliest occurred in 1950, when it appeared that France might actually ban Coca-Cola. Thanks to a long history of aggressive marketing and its patriotic efforts during World War II, Coca-Cola had become one of the foremost symbols of the United States and all it stood for — capitalism, free markets, and staunch anticommunism. The company did not shy away from politics; its chairman of the board, James Farley, proclaimed in 1950: “The time has come for Americans to challenge the aggressive, godless, and treasonable practices of totalitarian communism.” This overt stance made the drink deeply unpopular among European communists, who joined forces with local beverage producers worried about competition as Coca-Cola began trying to establish a foothold in Europe after the war.
In France, the Communist Party was the largest party in the National Assembly, with enduring support from about a quarter of the population. This made France a key battleground in the emerging Cold War, as the United States and the Soviet Union competed for the loyalties of European populations. French Communists deplored the outsized influence of the United States in postwar France and began to refer to this creeping Americanization as “coca-colonization,” after Coca-Cola’s plans for establishing bottling plants in France were revealed in 1948. In this view, Coca-Cola was just another symptom of the American effort to subjugate France, a sort of cultural subversion that underlay more obvious schemes like the Marshall Plan and NATO. America’s newfound hegemony in the political, military, economic, and cultural realms was increasingly assured, an anxietyinducing state of affairs for one of Europe’s oldest great powers.
The Communists were not the only ones opposed to Coca-Cola. French producers of wine, juice, and mineral water worried about unfair competition, and public health activists accused the drink of being addictive, possibly even poisonous. In 1950, this coalition of opponents arranged a vote in the National Assembly on the matter. The Communist proposal to ban Coca-Cola outright was defeated, but a more moderate proposal was suggested that would grant the government the authority to ban “nonalcoholic beverages made from vegetable extracts” (in other words, Coca-Cola). This motion passed, but it had no real effect as it did not directly mandate a ban.
The American press and public were not happy with French opposition to Coca-Cola, and in their reaction we can see the rhetorical strains of many future clashes over gastronomic trade. Farley thundered, “Coca-Cola was not injurious to the health of American soldiers who liberated France from the Nazis so that the Communist deputies could be in session today.” Others called for the United States to ban the import of French wines.
After several years of legal wrangling and appeals to government officials on both sides of the Atlantic, Coca-Cola was finally able to proceed with its operations in France. It was not wholeheartedly embraced by the French public, however, and even today France (along with Italy) has the lowest rate of Coca-Cola per capita consumption in Europe, about a third of U.S. consumption rates. Yet as in other countries, it still came to symbolize a kind of carefree and youthful pleasure seeking. In his 1966 film Masculin Féminin, Jean-Luc Godard characterized the young people of France as “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.”
Copyright © 2018 by Stéphane Hénaut and Jeni Mitchell. This excerpt originally appeared in A Bite-Sized History of France: Gastronomic Tales of Revolution, War, and Enlightenment, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.