There was an episode of The Simpsons a few years ago, in which Homer inadvertently accepted a job from a 007-style supervillain trying to conquer the world with a death ray. The villain asked homer whether he’d like to see France or Italy destroyed, and Homer answered France. “Funny,” said the bad guy, “no one ever says Italy.”
That episode aired back in the mid-nineties, showing that the animosity between the French and the Americans long pre-dates the Iraq war, 9/11 or even the election of George W. Bush. The French have resented American “cultural domination” for decades, while Americans’ stereotype of the smelly, cowardly Frenchman has been around as long as I can remember. But things really got ugly during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, which the French not only refused to join but actively tried to sabotage, to the point where some commentators said it was time to start treating France as a non-ally, if not an actual enemy.
Things have cooled down somewhat since Saddam was deposed, but the scars remain. A string of anti-American books have topped the French best-seller charts for some time (including works by anti-globalization “farmer” José Bové and 9/11 conspiracy whackjob Thierry Meyssan), and the past couple of years have seen several American authors respond in kind, with books like Our Oldest Enemy and The French Betrayal of America. Vile France, by National Review Online and Men’s Health contributor Denis Boyles, is the latest.
Boyles actually lives in France for part of each year, but after reading Vile France it’s hard to see why he’d subject himself to such torture. (In the unlikely event that this book is translated into French, one wonders whether they’ll let him back into the country at all.) He’s already rolling by page 3:
In just the last half-century or so, France has been guilty of eagerly abetting the Holocaust; perpetrating more postwar anti-Semitic acts than any other country in Europe; enabling and supporting state-sponsored genocide and slaughter in Africa and Asia; attacking unarmed civilians on foreign territory; arming enemies of Western democracies; treating its young with disdain and its elderly with a neglect that is often fatal; suppressing conventional human rights, especially the right to free speech; protecting murderers and war criminals from justice; pursuing a foreign policy in which mendacity is a strategy used against both friends and enemies; polluting the earth while rhetorically demanding planetary hygiene from others; pursuing illegal trade activities; engaging in massive, systemic corruption and greed; worshipping self-seriousness; and undermining American foreign policy whenever possible, no matter how many lives that costs. France looks great and seems swell, but it acts hideously. It’s the Ted Bundy of European nations.
All that, and they don’t bathe either. As you can probably tell, Vile France is an in-kind reply to a country that has gotten under Boyles’ skin once too often. The France described by Denis Boyles is militarily impotent, culturally inert, economically stagnant, governed by a hopelessly corrupt, out-of-touch business, media and governing elite, hopelessly overtaxed, racist, anti-Semitic, too lazy to work more than 35 hours a week and too self-centered to keep its most vulnerable citizens from dying cruel deaths during a brutal vacation-season heat wave.
Above all, the nation is astonishingly hypocritical in its dealings with other countries. During the diplomatic wrangling over Iraq, the French government portrayed itself as the guardian of the sainted United Nations, while its officials and businessmen received millions of dollars in oil-for-food bribes from Saddam. And no other EU nation lectures its fellow member states as often over their alleged failures to abide by the high standards of that august organization—nor does any other EU state as frequently ignore decisions and policies which it don’t like.
A book like this can easily become a tiresome laundry list of cheap shots and clichés, and there are occasions when Vile France hits the French below the belt. (Boyles, only half in jest, lists the reasons why France is more of a rogue state than North Korea.) What makes Vile France worth reading is that Boyles is such a hilarious writer—and like all the best satirists, he uses humor to make the most devastating points much more effectively than could any serious author.
Indeed, his writing style is similar enough to that of P.J. O’Rourke to make you wonder whether O’Rourke wrote Vile France under a pseudonym. (Charles Pasqua, a notoriously corrupt political associate of Jacques Chirac, is described as “the kind of man from whom you’d gladly buy a used car, because you know he’d kill you if you didn’t.”)
Vile France is not an academic study by any means. (Indeed, the lack of footnotes is kind of jarring, considering the seriousness of many of his allegations.) But it is a very effective and entertaining look at a nation in decline, but too proud to admit it. Should any Americans find themselves at a dinner party with some French guy obnoxiously raving about the United States’ (real and alleged) faults, Boyles’ book provides a lot of material for an effective rhetorical counterattack.