History, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and few people on Earth focus as intently on either as the people of France. This weekend, as an American president flies to France to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the very different perspective of the host country bears some reflection.
Just as the passage of time has created a D-Day myth in American minds, in France the date cannot be viewed without a bittersweet mix of humiliation, liberation, gratitude and shame. In so many ways, the France that Americans love and love to hate, and the France that loves and hates us right back, was born on D-Day.
“Among French people, the overwhelming attitude is one of gratitude, though certainly they didn’t enjoy having to be liberated just the way no one wants to be saved from drowning,” says Tony Smith, president of the French-American Foundation, a group that tries to encourage understanding among these prickly friends. “But politically, yes, the roots of French suspicions about America, and American suspicions about France, go right back to that period.”
Vichy, or not to Vichy?
This suspicion is rooted in two failures: France's collapse in 1940 and America's refusal to lift a finger as Europe's democracies began to fall.
It is hard to imagine now the shock that France's fall to Germany caused. Back in the 1930s, when military analysts assessed the military capabilities of the world’s great powers, France routinely led the list, with Britain a close second. (The United States placed generally in the mid- to late teens, behind such powers as Spain and Sweden. There is a lesson about military analysts here, too, but we’ll let that pass for the moment).
The surprisingly short work Germany made of the French Army in 1940 led to a collapse not just of the French state but of hope and moral bearings, too. Concluding that France had no hope of liberation, many joined the newly established collaborationist government in the town of Vichy. So complete was the French military defection that Britain felt it necessary to sink a good portion of the French Navy, killing over 1,300 sailors in the process.
But a good number of French officers resisted, too. Some remained behind and fought bravely against the German occupation inside France. Others, mainly military officers, fled to French colonial possessions or to Britain vowing to return someday to liberate their country.
By 1944, the leader among this latter group was Gen. Charles de Gaulle. On June 4, 1944, two days before 150,000 American, British, Canadian troops opened a second front against Hitler’s Germany, de Gaulle, the embodiment of France’s determination to fight on after Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940, arrived in London to confer with those who would presume to rescue his nation.
De Gaulle’s first official act spoke volumes about the poisonous relationship between de Gaulle and his British and American allies. The French general raised objections to the speech Eisenhower planned to broadcast into occupied Europe as the invasion began because it did not mention him by name. He threatened to withdraw his approval of the endeavor and ordered 600 French officers intended to serve as guides for Allied units not to disembark.
Viewed through he eyes of those whose troops liberated France, de Gaulle’s 11th hour tirade appears unbelievable in its ingratitude, not to mention its lack of tact and disregard for pressing military priorities. Indeed, the private papers of Roosevelt and Churchill indicate they loathed the man in equal measure, though Churchill ensured his Free French Movement had access to ample financial and military resources.
Yet the patience extended to this man without a country also says something about de Gaulle’s importance to Roosevelt and Churchill. Two years earlier, when American forces first landed in North Africa, Vichy French forces who were now allied with their German occupiers fought hard and competently, killing hundreds of Americans before a deal with their collaborationist leader, Admiral Jean Louis Darlan, finally ended resistance.
No such deal existed with the Vichy government ruling France in 1944. Would they fight alongside the Germans, as their comrades in French North Africa had? Roosevelt and Churchill could not take that chance. Like it or not, it was to de Gaulle that the French resistance and the French people gave their loyalty.
Late on June 6, with Allied soldiers already on the Normandy beaches, de Gaulle relented and allowed his liaison officers to join the invasion. But a tone was set for relations between the two “Anglo-Saxon” powers and France which endured throughout his life, and, in one form or another, right up to this day.
Separated at birth
So much history instructs and warps French and American views of each other that it seems almost dangerous to start at D-Day. French diplomats are quick to point out that without their help, we might not have won the Revolutionary War, a claim that military analysts (see paragraph 3) tend to agree with. The French gave us the Statue of Liberty, took the right side of the Civil War (unlike the British). And it is worth mentioning here that it was the Belgians, not the French, who first fried potato sticks.
Nonetheless, as the French author Philippe Roger put it, it was only after the World War II cycle of capitulation, collaboration, liberation and subsequent realization that they were no longer a top-rung power did the “a routine of resentment, a passionless Pavlovianism” creep into French views of America. (Perhaps the best rendition in English of this tendency in France, and those brave enough to confront it, is Adam Gopnik’s September 2003 piece in The New Yorker, “The anti-anti-Americans.”)
France remains a force in the world, true. But, as France’s Ambassador Jean-David Levitte told me recently, “the United States does not need France for ‘hard-power’ in Iraq. The United States needs France for ‘soft-power,’ as a leader of Europe and for its voice in the United Nations. We had a disagreement over the need for the war, but that is over. Now, we both agree that we want a free Iraq to emerge.”
A chance for rapprochement?
As America’s great media outlets have begun preparing for coverage of the D-Day celebrations this weekend, the question of a “grand gesture” by the French toward the American war in Iraq has been raised. Administration officials hint that, perhaps, just perhaps, the French President Jacque Chirac will use the occasion of France’s rescue as an opportunity to square the accounts — to issue a blanket endorsement of America’s plan for Iraq’s future and throw its support behind the transfer of power looming at the end of the month.
But expecting France to view D-Day in the same historical context that Americans view it is dangerously naive. Such leaps of logic are a pattern in American foreign policy. It cost lives on the beaches of North Africa in 1942, in the Koreas during the 1950s, at the Bay of Pigs and in Vietnam in the 1960s and in Beirut in the 1980s. Americans repeatedly overlay their own assumptions about history and the lessons it supposedly teaches when trying to forecast the behavior and attitude of another land.
This blind-spot is on display once again in Iraq, where rose-tinted glasses and a lethal underestimation of the nationalistic reaction Iraqis would have to being occupied have combined to do something astounding: prove the French right. France certainly wants the United States to be successful in Iraq at this point. But France seems unlikely to see D-Day as an opportunity to make good on a 60-year-old debt. Beyond nice speeches and some truly fine cuisine, don’t expect to France to liberate America from Iraq.
Michael Moran's column appears every week on MSNBC.com