THE FRENCH KISS-OFF: The History of French and American Relations

Friday, February 11, 2005

Is France America's oldest friend or its oldest enemy? Americans are taught that the United States owes its very independence to France—that if the French hadn't helped us during the Revolutionary War, we would still be part of the British Empire. Was this assistance the beginning of a long and close friendship between France and America or an anomaly in an otherwise contentious relationship? Peter Robinson speaks with John Miller and Robert Paxton Mellon.

Recorded on Friday, February 11, 2005

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: why are the French so French?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: two views of France. The Marquis de Lafayette, the French Fleet saving the day at Yorktown. The Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States. France, our oldest and one of our closest allies. According to this view of France, the rupture between the United States and France over the war in Iraq represented an anomaly and a terrible shock. There is however, another view of France and on this other view, the rupture over the war in Iraq represented just one more instance in a long and contentious relationship. France, our oldest ally or France, our oldest enemy?

Joining us today, two guests. Robert Paxton is a professor emeritus of social sciences at Columbia University. John Miller is National Political Correspondent of National Review magazine and co-author of the book Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship With France.

Title: The French Kiss-Off

Peter Robinson: French political philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, "I know French anti-Americanism well. A phobic hatred of America conceived of as a region not of the world but of being--" he's a French political philosopher after all--"almost of the soul lodged in the heart of my country's culture." Is a phobic hatred of America truly lodged in the heart of French culture? John?

John Miller: Well, anti-Americanism is a deep part of French culture.

Peter Robinson: Bob?

Robert Paxton: I think there are a few Frenchmen like that but there are many who are not.

Peter Robinson: Many who are not. All right. This is television so this will be extremely compressed but we're now about to engage in a little more than two centuries of Franco-American history. John Miller, you describe France as our oldest enemy yet we're all taught that the United States owes its existence, its independence to France. If the French hadn't helped us during the Revolutionary War, we'd still be part of the British Empire. Sir?

John Miller: Well, there's a popular story in America about France and Franco-American relations that is essentially a myth. It does begin with Lafayette and Yorktown and then it proceeds to the Louisiana Purchase which is described as the greatest real estate transaction in history in which Napoléon gave vast amount of land to the United States at rock bottom prices to his good friend, Thomas Jefferson. There's the Statue of Liberty. There's, of course, the storming of Normandy right up to the present day. And when you see conflict like we had recently--the recent unpleasantness between the two countries over Iraq, a lot of Americans scratch their head and they say well, isn't France our oldest friend? Haven't they always been with us? And, in fact, that is not true. The popular story is told in our textbooks, cultivated by French diplomats and many Americans like to be seduced by this myth. The myth is 200 years of sweetness and light when, in fact, it is 300 years of friction and hostility.

Peter Robinson: Give us the Revolutionary period. What was the friction during the pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary period?

John Miller: Well, before the Revolution, there was a long period of the French and Indian wars, of course, so named because the French and Indians were the enemies of the American colonists of the time. And it was during this period when the first articulations of American national consciousness come into being because Americans are perceiving the French Empire as an external threat. And they're beginning not to view themselves as Virginians or colonists in Massachusetts but as Americans with a common bond.

Peter Robinson: Bob, even before this country was a country, the French were behaving badly toward us. French and Indian War is trying to kick us out of the continent.

Robert Paxton: Well, the French and Indian Wars are--it takes two to make a war and we were trying to kick them out of the continent. And actually we succeeded and they've mostly failed. They hung on in Quebec but the French and Indian Wars, the French had their Indians and we had our Indians. And there were some rather ugly stories on both sides. And the ugliest story of all which I read about as a schoolboy in Longfellow's Evangeline when the British cleared the French out of Nova Scotia. I just read a review of a new book by a man named Faragher, I believe, who says that 10,000 mostly women and children died in that ethnic cleansing of exposure and starvation which is the Acadians who got to Louisiana and became the Cajuns. So it was a dirty war on both sides and we won.

Peter Robinson: As we discuss the history of Franco-American relations, on to another low moment.

Title: Un-Civil Conduct

Peter Robinson: We now go to the Civil War. The French supported the secession of South. Why?

John Miller: It's true. Napoléon III was the Emperor of France at the time. He was the nephew of the Napoléon Bonaparte, the one we all know very well. And he had a lot of visions about the French empire and what he could do with it in the New World. Like many people in Europe, he was sympathetic to the South for a variety of reasons, some having to do with aristocratic affinity with Southern plantation owners, a lot of it economic. And he wanted to enter the war on the side of the South. He supported secession but he wouldn't do it without the British. And the British never quite got there. So Napoléon did not enter militarily into the war. But he did do one thing. He took advantage of the distractions Americans had among themselves over the war and installed a puppet regime in Mexico. This was the first major transgression of the Monroe Doctrine which is the policy President Monroe had set up several decades earlier saying that the western hemisphere was essentially off-limits to European powers. This was the first major transgression of that doctrine which, by the way, was largely set up out of concern for France.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so France supports the South--not a good thing to do from the point of view of the United States--and he installs the brother of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, the Emperor Maximilian into Mexico whose…

Robert Paxton: I thought it was a nephew or something.

Peter Robinson: I remember him chiefly for his line just before he was executed by Benito Juárez--he turned to his cook and said, "You said it would never come to this and you see now you were wrong." In any event, that is not good behavior toward the United States.

Robert Paxton: No. It's a dreadful story and I think Miller and Molesky have it approximately right. Napoléon III was one of the worst bits of news to come along. The trouble with the story is that the British are doing the same thing. The British also want cotton and they favor the South.

Peter Robinson: The British did not enter the war on the side of the South because the abolitionist movement in Britain by then is too strong. Is that not correct?

John Miller: That's a large piece of it, yes.

Robert Paxton: That's part of it but what we're seeing here which is characteristic of this book is to single out the French when, in fact, a number of countries are doing similar things.

John Miller: Here's the fundamental point though, Peter, which is the French love to talk about Lafayette and Yorktown. We are America's oldest friend. We have always been there for you. They never talk about the Civil War and Napoléon III because they can't. So this is just forgotten and…

Peter Robinson: Twentieth century and despite all this talk about France's Republican ideals--human rights, democracy--your groundbreaking work and indeed it is groundbreaking, a real addition to understanding of French history, is on the Vichy regime, in which the painstaking documentary work, you establish that the Vichy regime far from trying to protect France against the Germans, was offering the Germans even more than they asked. They were angling for a deal in Hitler's new Europe. Is that not correct?

Robert Paxton: I think they were trying to protect France in their way and they thought they were going to do a deal. They thought they had assets to offer and that this was definitive. Hitler had won and they would make a place for themselves in the new Europe. They would benefit from the decline of the British Empire. And they thought they would do a deal which was a very crass thing…

Peter Robinson: Can I just ask, Bob, Germany has come clean in the post-War period--in these decades since--and did a pretty good job, wouldn't you say, of facing up to their own history.

Robert Paxton: I think they've done a good job.

Peter Robinson: Have the French faced their own history?

Robert Paxton: I think they have.

Peter Robinson: You do?

Robert Paxton: I think they have. I think they have. I think it took a while. I think it took until the '70s but the Germans have their Zeitgeschichte, their contemporary history group of distinguished historians who are looking at things honestly and the French have a contemporary history group and a group of young historians doing a clear-eyed honest job and they're teaching it in the schools. And in the '90s, they tried two Frenchmen for war crimes. And so I think they've come pretty clean.

Peter Robinson: Okay. But it took them a long time?

Robert Paxton: Took them a long time.

Peter Robinson: Next, how did the French behave during the Cold War?

Title: De Gaulling Behavior

Peter Robinson: The great struggle of the second half of the 20th century, the Cold War. How did the French acquit themselves?

John Miller: Well, they were unreliable allies during the Cold War. Charles de Gaulle was President for much of this period, of course, and I think a lot of Americans who remember him, understood him as a pompous, very difficult man who had very difficult relations with the United States--was a constant critic of the United States, of its culture, of the way it exerted force around the world, pulled out of NATO. Interesting story…

Peter Robinson: 1966?

John Miller: Yes. Interesting story. Very recently we've had boycotts of French products--these ad hoc boycotts inspired by personalities and so forth. People say they're going to stop buying French wine. They're going to stop buying French products over Iraq. When de Gaulle pulled out of NATO, when he made some efforts to destabilize the American dollar in the late 1960s, Americans reacted in exactly the same way. There were these attempts to boycott. The people in Congress were talking about it. They didn't invent freedom fries back then but it was the same kind of controversy.

Robert Paxton: But I think that Americans misunderstood the role profoundly. De Gaulle practiced a kind of realpolitik that's offensive to a lot of Americans but a strong America was an essential part of his poker game and he depended on it. That might seem cynical to us but when we were in difficulty, he always sided firmly with us. He was the firmest ally during the Berlin troubles in 1961. He was the firmest ally during the Cuban troubles in '62.

Peter Robinson: Macmillan went a little wobbly in '61…

Robert Paxton: There was a famous story of de Gaulle being briefed about the missiles in Cuba. I think it was Dean Acheson but maybe it was somebody else.

Peter Robinson: Adlai Stevenson. Adlai Stevenson, I'm almost sure.

Robert Paxton: Maybe, I'm not sure.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Robert Paxton: But some imminent personality went over with the pictures and said Mr. President, we have these pictures and we wanted to show them to you. And "No," says de Gaulle, "The word of the President of the United States is enough for me." And then there was the period when he was…

John Miller: You know what? He did look. After that meeting was over…

Peter Robinson: Is that true?

John Miller: After that meeting was over, they brought the pictures in and showed him. This is part of the mythology. There's this great anecdote. John Kerry told that story again and again during the campaign. He said this is how our wonderful relationship with France used to be with Charles de Gaulle, this very pleasant gentleman who trusted America. That anecdote is only half of the story.

Robert Paxton: It is just half the story because I haven't finished my analysis. De Gaulle was playing this complicated game. When the Americans needed him, he was there. Other times, he wanted to show his elbow room. This is a country that had been defeated in 1940, that had been defeated in Algeria. De Gaulle has a mutinous army on his hands. He has to show the French people that their country still matters. So he does this flexing of elbows and speaks out and annoys us and it's a way of expressing his independence.

Peter Robinson: Absolutely critical point. Absolutely critical point. One reading of de Gaulle is that in the great moral struggle of the last half of the 20th century, he failed to choose sides decisively. He was with the United States overall because he wanted France to be free of the Soviet Union but whenever he could, he would try to cut slack, use sharp elbows and work against the United States. He was a free rider on our defense and diplomacy holding NATO together. The other view is that he had very serious problems with the communists in France itself and that he had to define his policy against the United States to a large extent in order to keep France in the free world, to keep the communists from becoming as much of a force in France as indeed at certain points they did become in Italy. To which do you subscribe?

Robert Paxton: I subscribe to the first of those two views. And I don't think his most serious problem was the communists. There's no…

Peter Robinson: So he was an immoral bastard!

Robert Paxton: His most serious problem were the officers. Army officers were trying to kill him because he had stopped the war in Algeria which was a mark of a great realist. It was good for us in the Cold War.

Peter Robinson: Now to recent history: the Iraq war.

Title: Detour de France

Peter Robinson: The current critical rupture, the disagreement between France and the United States over Iraq. The United States does indeed take the matter to the United Nations, yet France derides us for unilateralism. We spend months laying out the arguments, yet French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin argues that, "Nothing justifies envisaging military action." They thwarted us. They were obstructionists. They did nothing but cause trouble. Correct?

John Miller: Yes, that's absolutely true and one of my points is is this is the last in a long episode of difficult periods. I mean, President Chirac is a Gaullist. He is a neo-Gaullist. His behavior is very much like what Charles de Gaulle's was. And right now there's a powerful idea in French culture and politics that the United States is not just the lone superpower in the world but it is a hyperpower. This is their word.

Peter Robinson: What's that French phrase?

Robert Paxton: Hyperpuissance.

John Miller: Right and the prefix hyper, they intend for it to have all the negative connotations…

Robert Paxton Not really. Their supermarkets are called hypermarche.

John Miller: They mean out of control. It is a power that needs to be constrained and they view France's purpose in the world today to do that.

Peter Robinson: Bob, to what extent does the French opposition to the war in Iraq derive from French domestic politics? The population in France of Muslims is now 5 million, about 8% of the French total population--that's a larger proportion than any other major Western European country.

Robert Paxton: I think it derives from the domestic politics all right, but I think it reflects French public opinion--non-Muslim public opinion. The French thought that going to war in Iraq was an extremely bad idea and I admit there were certainly some self-interests involved. They probably wanted to collect some of their debts. But this response to French public opinion, which is not different from most of European public opinion, which was that it was a bad idea for the same reasons that Bush Sr. didn't go in, which was it would likely blow the country into three parts, bring in Iran and Turkey.

Peter Robinson: You just said that French public opinion is not too different from European public opinion. Consider this--Britain, Spain, Italy, Poland, Hungary all support the war in Iraq. In Germany, Gerhard Schröder opposes the war but leaders in the opposition party in Germany make a lot of noise, making it clear that they think this is a terrible mistake but they still want a very firm alliance with the United States and that had they been in power, they would have supported the war in Iraq. Only in France, among the major Western European countries do you have the total political spectrum. Chirac is after all, the conservative leader and he's anti-American, let alone--the left is also--the point I'm trying to make is that France is distinctive in its anti-Americanness, in the thoroughness, the purity of its anti-Americanness. Why? What makes the French different from the Europeans?

Robert Paxton: I don't think that's so by the way. You said these countries support the war. Their governments support the war. Their public opinions are in the majority, hostile to it--Spanish public opinion, even British public opinion, Polish public opinion. And then there is a 20% in France that support the war.

Peter Robinson: John?

John Miller: This brings us back to the de Gaulle question in an interesting way is that you can make the case that while he was reacting to communists in his own country and he had to do these sorts of things to balance…

Peter Robinson: But Bob makes the case that he's reacting to his own army officers.

John Miller: Well, that he has domestic concerns and he has to balance these different powers during the Cold War. But look at Tony Blair. Tony Blair didn't play any kind of complicated parlor game. He actually looked at domestic opinion in his country and he probably knew that supporting the United States and involving his own country in Iraq would have been a very difficult thing. And yet he did it anyway. He showed the kind of leadership that we would have liked to have seen in de Gaulle.

Peter Robinson: Moral courage!

John Miller: …and also Chirac. Exactly.

Robert Paxton: Unless you think it was a bad idea in which case it takes moral courage perhaps to oppose it.

Peter Robinson: Next, what can be done, what should be done to restore Franco-American relations?

Title: Quiche and Make Up

Peter Robinson: How would you advise President Bush and Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice to put the Franco-American relationship back together or would you? John Miller?

John Miller: Well, they're off to a good start. I thought Condoleezza Rice's visit to Paris was successful.

Peter Robinson: During which she did what?

John Miller: She gave a speech in Paris and basically said to the French, it is never too late to join a just cause. Her line…

Peter Robinson: How did that go down for them?

John Miller: I thought it was a successful visit. Now I don't know that they're going to send troops to Iraq. I'm sure they won't in fact, but the message should be that America's going to do what it thinks it needs to do in its own national interest. And in many cases, the French national interests can be quite the same thing and they could participate in a coalition of the willing.

Peter Robinson: On this program, not long ago, indeed seated in that very chair--historian Niall Ferguson offered this advice to President Bush. I quote Niall, "I would say to President Bush, Mr. President, the French despise you. They treat you with contempt. Do not expect anything from them. Do not expect assistance in Iraq and do not regard them as in any sense your allies when it comes to the Middle East."

John Miller: I think that's accurate and I think President Bush knows it.

Peter Robinson: And if you had been seated where you're seated now when Niall said that, what would you have done? Come up out of your chair?

Robert Paxton: Well, I would have said the first half of your reasoning is accurate and that is that governments by and large seek to express the interests of their countries and the will of their citizens. And that's all that we should expect from France. We shouldn't expect them to be our satellites because we helped them in the two World Wars. They're going to do what they think is in their interest. And so our business is to try to engage them in things that are in our mutual interest. And we are working with them as you say in your book. On the police level, we work together very well. The one person who has been indicted in this country on charges related to 9/11 was given to us by the French police. The French are active in Afghanistan where we've had to move out and they're active in the Balkans, they're active in Haiti. We're cooperating in many areas.

Peter Robinson: One more question…

Robert Paxton: And we can cooperate in some areas and where we can't, I don't think we should let it upset us unduly.

Peter Robinson: Another question about how to understand France historically. There's the argument, Robert Kagan makes this argument, that it's only natural for Europeans to see the war in Iraq differently from Americans. In their history, last century, the use of force leads to pointless slaughter. The First World War did not end very happily for France, horrible slaughter. The Second World War was not a happy experience for France whereas in our history, the use of force tends to accomplish concrete ends. Vietnam was a fiasco but we did all right in World War II. The use of force works for us. Last 50 years, Europe builds a new Europe, they think, built on international institutions, cooperation, so forth; the French lamb has lain down with the German lion at last. Whereas in our experience during the last fifty years, we've had one reason after another to think of ourselves as standing alone or bearing most of the burden, increased sense of our own nationhood. What do you make of that? The French are simply acting as you'd expect them to act based on the last five, six, seven decades of their own experience.

Robert Paxton: I think that's absolutely right. The French had an awful 20th century, 1,300,000 dead in the First World War. That's five times what we lost in the entire Second World War, Atlantic and Pacific theaters combined. And then they had a dreadful Second World War. But it didn't make pacifists out of them. It made pacifists out of the Germans. The French fought for 17 years in the colonies after the end of the Second World War. They…

Peter Robinson: In Indochina…

Robert Paxton: …in Indochina…

Peter Robinson: Algeria.

Robert Paxton: …in Algeria. They turn out on July 14th to watch their soldiers march by but they don't want to send them just anywhere. They want to plan very carefully where they use force.

Peter Robinson: Finally, one last question. These days, does France even matter?

Title: Francs for the Memories

Peter Robinson: John Miller, "In the end it may not even matter whether France is an ally of the United States. As the United States rose to the position of the world's most powerful country, France often has been relegated to the role of a mere irritant." Does it really matter?

John Miller: The only ways that it matters is because they can obstruct and harass through organizations like the UN Security Council. I mean, the problem with Iraq wasn't just a failure to cooperate. It was French obstruction and harassment in this very forum, where they did everything they possibly could to get in the way of what America saw was its national interest. They didn't just sit on the sidelines and say we think maybe this isn't a good idea but whatever. They got in the way. They threatened the NATO alliance. They attempted to form coalitions with other countries to oppose this. They were adversaries.

Robert Paxton: I think this is very interesting because if you were looking for a real adversary in the Iraq conflict, it would be Turkey. Turkey prevented us from having the northern front. And is anybody out there boycotting baklava? I don't think so. The Turks--we just took it. With the French, it gets our goat. Why? I think we expect too much of them. I think we've got this romantic tale in our heads that we, the White Knight, rode off to save them and they spit in our eye. I think that's the wrong level to put this on. We both seek our national interests and sometimes we agree and sometimes we don't. But they obstructed us a lot less than Turkey. Or even than Germany. The Germans said we would never support you. The French said well let's take four more months and maybe we will.

Peter Robinson: …de Villepin firmed up the position though.

John Miller: Turkey had its problems but to suggest they were a bigger thorn in the side of the United States…

Robert Paxton: But we couldn't have our northern front.

John Miller: …I think not true. And one…

Robert Paxton: We couldn't have our northern front.

John Miller: Well, one of the big conflicts before the war actually began is Turkey requesting defensive equipment…

Robert Paxton: That's correct.

John Miller: …through NATO. And for the first time in NATO history, it was ignored because the French got in the way. This was…

Peter Robinson: You know why it irks us. It's because we expect more of them.

Robert Paxton: Well, we think we saved them. And we did it for self-interests. We had this funny idea and it's also in your book.

Peter Robinson: In the First World War we did help them.

Robert Paxton: Well, we helped them but it was in our own self-interest and also in the Second World War. Took us three years to get there and we did it because the Germans were playing around with Mexico and they were sinking our ships. We don't help them out of charity. We help them out of interest which is why they helped us in the American Revolution.

Peter Robinson: Let me put this to you. Prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, polls indicated that more than three-quarters of the American people held a favorable view of France. By 2003, that proportion had fallen to just one stinking third. Two-thirds of Americans hold an unfavorable view of France. Five years from now, a year into the administration of a new president, George Bush will be gone--to the extent that Bush himself is the irritant, he won't even be there anymore--five years from now, what proportion of Americans will hold a favorable view of France? Bob?

Robert Paxton: I have no idea but let me give you a historical parallel and that is in 1966, General de Gaulle withdrew from the united command--not from NATO but from the military command…

Peter Robinson: From the military command.

Robert Paxton: …which is an important part of it. Two years later, Nixon was elected president and Henry Kissinger and they admired the realpolitik of de Gaulle. They thought an independent strong France was better for us in the Cold War than the weak republic had been. And de Gaulle needed to come closer to us. Nixon needed to come closer to de Gaulle and they hit it off. The approval ratings went up. That's one possibility. I have no idea where we'll be in five years but it's been a roller coaster ride and it could happen again.

Peter Robinson: John?

John Miller: It has been a roller coaster ride. There is a history of Americans forgetting the animosity between the two countries. But I'll answer your question, I'll say 40%.

Peter Robinson: Forty percent. It'll inch up a bit. All right.

Peter Robinson: Bob Paxton, John Miller, thank you very much.

Bob Paxton, John Miller: Thank you, Peter.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge. Thanks for joining us.