Settle down and listen up
Molly Ivins – Creators Syndicate
02.18.03 – AUSTIN, Texas — As our coaches used to say, “OK, people,
settle down and listen up.” We have been enjoying a lovely little spate of
French-bashing here lately. Jonah Goldberg of The National Review, who
admits that French-bashing is “shtick” — as it is to many American comedians —
has popularized the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” to describe the
French. It gets a lot less attractive than that.
George Will saw fit to include in his latest Newsweek column this
joke: “How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris? No one knows, it’s never
been tried.” That was certainly amusing. One million, four hundred thousand
French soldiers were killed during World War I. As a result, there weren’t
many Frenchmen left to fight in World War II. Nevertheless, 100,000 French
soldiers lost their lives trying to stop Hitler.
On behalf of every one of those 100,000 men, I would like to thank Mr.
Will for his clever joke. They were out-manned, out-gunned, out-generaled
and, above all, out-tanked. They got slaughtered, but they stood and they
fought. Ha-ha, how funny. In the few places where they had tanks, they held
Relying on the Maginot Line was one of the great military follies of
modern history, but it does not reflect on the courage of those who died for
France in 1940. For eighteen months after that execrable defeat, the United
States of America continued to have cordial diplomatic relations with Nazi
One of the great what-ifs of history is: What would have happened if
Franklin Roosevelt had lived to the end of his last term? How many wars have
been lost in the peace? For those of you who have not read “Paris 1919,” I
recommend it highly. Roosevelt was anti-colonialist. That system was a great
evil, a greater horror even than Nazism or Stalinism.
If you have read “Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild, you have some
idea. The French were in it up to their necks. Instead of insisting on
freedom for the colonies of Europe, we let our allies carry on with the
system, leaving the British in India and Africa, and the French in Vietnam
and Algeria, to everyone’s eventual regret.
Surrender monkeys? Try Dien Bien Phu. Yes, the French did surrender,
didn’t they? After 6,000 French dead in a no-hope position. Ever heard of
the Foreign Legion? Of the paratroopers, called “paras”? God, the trouble we
could have saved ourselves if we had only paid attention to Dien Bien Phu.
Then came Algeria for the French. As nasty a war as has ever been
fought. If you have seen the film “Battle of Algiers,” you have some idea.
Five generations of pieds noirs, French colonialists, thought it was their
country. Charles de Gaulle came back into power in 1958, specifically
elected to keep Algeria French. I consider de Gaulle’s long, slow, delicate,
elephantine withdrawal (de Gaulle even looked like an elephant) one of the
single greatest acts of statesmanship in history. Only de Gaulle could have
Those were the years when France learned about terrorism. The
plastiquers were all over Paris. The “plastic” bombs, the ones you can stick
like Play-Do underneath the ledge of some building, were the popular weapon
du jour. It made Israel today look tame. For France, terrorism is, “Been
there, done that.”
The other night on “60 Minutes,” Andy Rooney, who fought in France and
certainly has a right to be critical, chided the French for forgetting all
that sacrifice (100,000 Frenchmen died trying to stop Hitler in 1940, and
150,000 Allied troops died to liberate that nation in 1944.) But I think he
got it backward: The French remember too well.
I was in Paris on Sept. 11, 2001. The reaction was so immediate, so
generous, so overwhelming. Not just the government, but the people kept
bringing flowers to the American embassy. They covered the American
Cathedral, the American Church, anything they could find that was American.
They didn’t just leave flowers, they wrote notes with them. I read over 100
of them. Not only did they refer, again and again, to Normandy, to never
forgetting, there were even some in ancient, spidery handwriting referring
to WW I: “Lafayette is still with you.”
Look, the French are not a touchy-feely people. They’re more, like,
logical. For them to approach total strangers in the streets who look
American and hug them is seriously extraordinary. I got patted so much I
felt like a Labrador retriever. I wish Andy Rooney had been there.
This is where I think the real difference is. We Americans are
famously ahistorical. We can barely be bothered to remember what happened last week,
or last month, much less last year. The French are really stuck on history.
(Some might claim this is because the French are better educated than we
are. I won’t go there.) Does it not occur to anyone that these are very old
friends of ours, trying to tell us what they think they know about being
hated by weak enemies in the Third World?
© 2003 Creators Syndicate