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Looking at the French

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Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship With France is a needed text for any Americans who want to understand modern day France. John Miller and Mark Molesky lay out the history of our relationship with France as well as the intellectual basis for the present French Foreign Policy. While most Americans view France support of our revolution as the rule, Miller and Molesky note this was actually the exception. In the years before revolution and shortly after, we were involved in actual combat against the French. For nearly a century before the Revolutionary War, French and their Indian allies conducted a brutal war in the wilderness against Americans. Massacres were considered part of the war with many civilians killed.

Between 1798 and 1800, the United States were involved in an undeclared naval war against France and the War of 1812 could easily have been against the French but due to deft diplomacy by Napoleon, we fought the British instead. During the Civil War, Napoleon III set up a puppet government in Mexico and tried to undermine the Northern effort to subdue the South. After the Civil War, Many Americans including General Grant were ready to invade Mexico to eliminate the French threat there. Due to Secretary of State Steward skillful diplomacy, war was prevented and the Mexican people took care of the French invaders themselves.

One weakness is that the two authors are excessively critical of George Clemenceau’s machinations during the Paris Peace talks. I will agree with their assessment about the result of Clemenceau’s diplomacy but one should be more sympathetic to Clemenceau’s own concern. Clemenceau did not trust the Germans and after seeing his country thrust in two wars with Germany in the previous half-century, he viewed Germany as a permanent threat. Historian Paul Johnson wisely noted that if Germany had won the war, the peace would have been even harsher. When Germany knocked Russia out of the war, the treaty signed with the new Communist rulers was more putative than what the Allies eventually enforced upon Germany.

The failure of Clemenceau’s diplomacy was that it depended upon France being prepared to use arms to keep Germany weak. France post World War I foreign policy depended upon the alliances of smaller nations in central Europe to encircle Germany and keep Germany in check. When Hitler rearmed, France had numerous opportunities to deal with Hitler at a minimal cost. Instead, France appeased Germany and the rest is history. Clemenceau true failure was that he overestimated future French leader willingness to act and their failure only exacerbated the failure of Clemenceau’s hard line. Clemenceau was only following a policy of ensuring that your enemy never can ever hurt you again. Just as the Romans buried Carthage’s, so Clemenceau wanted to bury Germany. He failed. When viewed from his point of view and time, Clemenceau point of view represented sound policy but it did prove disastrous. The lack of will on French leaders during the 1930’s ensured the failure of Clemenceau vision.

The biggest strength of their book is describing the intellectual basis of French President Chirac’s present Gallic foreign policy. Chirac was a follower of General Charles De Gaulle, whose goal was to restore France former glory. De Gaulle organized resistance to the Germans after France defeat in 1940. He was the energy behind Free France but his goals and objectives differ from his allies. There were times that De Gaulle undermined Allies efforts and he proved a difficult man to deal with. Many in France collaborated with the Nazis and resisted the Allies efforts to liberate them. While we have this historic view of mass French resistance to German occupation, the reality is that Vichy France allied themselves with Nazis Germany. Many French not only tolerated German racist policy but even help enforce them. Another problem with the resistance was that many in the resistance were under the control of Moscow. So France during World War II saw many of their leaders allying themselves with the various totalitarian forces of their day. This would have negative effect in the Cold War as communists played significant role in French politics and many intellectuals adopted anti-American position. Some intellectuals developed a love affair with totalitarian governments or at least a tolerance.

De Gaulle was the one figure that survived the war with his reputation intact and in 1958, came back in power to deal with the crisis resulting from the Algerian insurgency. He ended France involvement in Algeria at great risk to himself and helped build France into a modern economy. As a President, he effectively put France’s economic house in order after the chaos and failures of the previous governments in the post war era.

He also undermined NATO efforts in the cold war but as Molesky and Miller observed, De Gaulle was able to get away with his third way foreign policy since he knew that American troops would be first line of his defense in Germany. He understood that America would defend France no matter what, so he could engage in idealistic dream of having France “rule Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals.”

Molesky and Miller details the many incidents of France opposition to Americans efforts in the Cold War including when President Mitterand refusal to allow American planes to fly over France during the 1986 Libya bombing raid. Even in the first Gulf War, France proved to be an unreliable ally and as the authors noted, their military efforts were minimal during the conflict. We didn’t lose anything not having the French fighting at our side in the recent conflict.

The real danger is that too many French intellectuals have illusion of grandeur about France’s role in the world. Since the end of the Napoleonic era, France has been in decline vis a vis other European powers. For many French, Napoleon represented their glory day but as the authors note, Napoleon embroiled Europe in two decades of war that killed millions and did very little to advance liberty. He was a dictator in the image of the modern day thugs but for many in France, he was their benchmark of French glory.

As long as America provided protection from the real world threat, many French intellectuals could engage in wishful thinking. The authors write, “One of the saddest realities of French intellectual life during the Cold War was that so many of the country is leading thinkers supported the Soviet Union even after its true nature was widely known.” They added, “The French retreat into abstraction, not the murky thickets of structuralism, deconstruction, and post modern language games….was preceded by a wholesale French withdrawal fro the great moral questions for the Day.” For many French, the reality of world was replaced by make-believe.

The intellectual fantasy developed during the Cold War has now come to forefront as many in the French communities believe that the United States stand in the way of French goals and have become a de facto enemy. Whether it is attacking American culture or complaining about America hegemony, much of the French intellectual and foreign policy apparatus view American ascendancy counter to their goal of dominating Europe through the EU. France wants to become major players on the world scene through various international bodies such as the European Union and the United Nations.

The fantasy that America is a threat to French interest is illusionary thinking that is also dangerous. America is no threat to French interest and has no desire to keep “France in her place.” France wants to run Europe from the Urals to the Atlantic and use the EU as means to get the rest of Europe to support its welfare state as well as its foreign policy objectives. France goal is be the intellectual leader of Europe and use the various international bodies to reign in the United States, even at the cost of losing the war on terror. Chirac’s France has already attempted to intimidate the new Eastern European powers when they sided with the United States on the Iraq War and they essentially told the Turkey that the price of EU admission meant no support for the United States in second Gulf War. Turkey is still no closer to joining the EU but France efforts against Turkey at the start of the war certainly forced America to change their war plans.

Miller and Molesky conclude, “Democratic France must finally be persuaded that its long-term interests correspond with those of the United States and Britain. Yet given the distorted prism though which the French view their role in the world, this may be difficult.” The authors conclude correctly that France has adopted a very narrow and shortsighted view of their national interest that feeds upon, “fantasies of greatness and living in denial about strategic realities that affect them profoundly.” Our present poor relation with France can be laid at the doorstep of dangerous delusions of the French themselves. As Miller and Molesky note, “Will they awake from the anti-American delusions of Gaullism and Euro-leftism and see that the twenty-first requires a wholly different vision?” For many years, French could engage in illusion since they were protected by American power but the time for such foolishness is over. A new World is being created in the wake of 9/11 but for many in the French intellectual circles, it is 1969 all over again. It is simply time for the French to simply grow up.

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About Tom Donelson

  • The French have always been somewhat of an enigma in their foreign policy efforts – for example, they pulled out of Nato during the cold war which was very strange at the time.

    The reality is that the deomcratic countries of the world have far more in common than in differences and need to focus there


  • Bryce Eddings

    Listed at Advance

  • I wholeheartedly disagree with this book. They may have gotten a few of the facts right (eg. France not letting the US use their airspace when it comes to bombing Lybia) but the methods and the motivations for doing this are all wrong. The French have never had it out for the United States and their main motivation from before the nintenth century is to counter their old rival Britian. During the French and Indian War we were not Americans but English colonists and the British used Indians on just a grand a scale as the French. French occupation of Mexico had more to do with reversing the shrinking of an imperialistic Empire, and to hold on to the lucrative trade in Mexico (something that America itself has been guilty of- eg. “In the Eagle’s Shadow”, by Kyle Longley) And that any substancial foothold that France had on North America was either conquored by the British, or bought by the Americans.
    France’s modern stance opposite the United States might be out of a little jelousy that it is the US and not the French that has their hands in everyone’s cookie jar, but mostly what it has to do with is the idea started by French Farmers who are against American’s massed produced, geneticaly modified, and heavily subsidized produce industry. And when you compare French history, art and culture to Wal-mart you might get a little sting of loss for the good old days too. I have a degree in History and Franco-US relations and one thing that I cannot stand is a book that just happens to distort the facts for socio-political ends.