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The Permanent War

Highlights of an Anti-American Chronology 


France is one of the United States’ closest allies – on paper. In truth, over nearly a quarter of a millennium, France’s relations with the United States have been characterised by a persistent hostility towards the country it considers its political, economic and cultural rival.


Hatred of America and Americans is nothing new, and it’s never been localised. Walk into a sports bar in downtown Tehran, if there is such a thing, wearing a Stars and Stripes, and you can expect to find it draped on the coffin mailed to your mom minutes later. But, what the hell, that’s an occupational risk of being the modern world’s biggest economic, political and cultural success. The pygmies of Skull Island probably had mixed feelings about the great god Kong too.

That success is highly visible in France. Go into any Carrefour supermarket in France and you’ll find bakery shelves stacked with “Harry's American Sandwich” bread. McDonalds sells 585 million meals to the French every year, including such treats as Le New York burger and Le Texas. ‘Britney Spears’ was the term most searched for on Google France in 2005. The all-time top box-office film in France is the American blockbuster, ‘Titanic’. While President Chirac sneers at American cultural imperialism, he can’t resist inviting Steven Spielberg to the Elysée Palace to give him the légion d'honneur. Like it or not, America is an integer in French life.

Many French don’t like it – and never have. The myth of Franco-American friendship begins with French assistance in the American Revolution and continues with the United States preserving French liberty – twice – in the 20th Century. The reality, pointed out most recently by John L. Miller and Mark Molesky in Our Oldest Enemy (2004), is hostility, bloodshed, sabotage, envy and, on the French side, over two centuries of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, that in the words of a diplomat from another nation, “represents a neurosis”. Here are just a few milestones:


1704 During “Queen Anne’s War (1702-13), 300 French and Indian marauders attack Deerfield in Massachusetts, massacring forty-four residents including twenty-five children. More captives die on a forced death march including the pregnant Mary Brooks who miscarries after slipping by the road and is summarily killed.


1754 French invaders overwhelm George Washington’s small force at Fort Necessity, Ohio, beginning the French and Indian War (1754-60). Highlights include the massacre of American prisoners at Fort Oswego, Ontario and Fort William Henry, New York. Less successful against soldiers who haven’t surrendered, the war ends with France’s expulsion from all of North America.


1777 During the War of Independence (1775-83) France gives little help to American colonists until the victory at Saratoga in 1777. Eventually a fleet is sent under Admiral Charles-Hector d’Estaing who bickers with the American commanders. As his allies attack the British in New York by land, d’Estaing abandons them and sails off to Boston. Angry rebels lynch a French officer unwise enough to go ashore. (D’Estaing also tries to arrest the Marquis de Lafayette, one of the few Frenchmen not ordered or paid to assist the Americans, for being there without official permission).


1779 D’Estaing’s forces combine with those of General Benjamin Lincoln outside British-held Savanna, Georgia. D’Estaing insists on attacking before preparations are complete and suffers 800 casualties to 150 British. Despite American pleas, D’Estaing takes his fleet back to France in a sulk.


1779 August French ships join the American privateer Bonhomme Richard under John Paul Jones as it fights the bigger British ship, HMS Serapis off Flamborough Head. At one point, the French vessel Alliance actually fires on Jones’ ship, its captain later confiding to one of his officers that his intention had been to sink the vessel and take credit for victory. 


1781 After victory at Yorktown beside their French allies, the resurgent Americans beg that the new French fleet under Admiral de Grasse transport its troops to finish off the British at Charleston. Seeking a victory he doesn’t have to share, de Grasse instead leaves for the West Indies and is promptly crushed by the British at the Battle of the Saints.


1793 With peace declared, President Washington issues the Neutrality Proclamation to keep the young republic out of European wars. Edmond-Charles Genet, minister to the United States of the new revolutionary government in France, has different ideas. He commissions privateers to attack British ships, hires private armies to attack Florida and Louisiana and, when the US government complains, tries to affect the elections through bribery. The US government demands his recall. Rather than return and face the guillotine, Genet asks the Americans for political asylum, becoming the country’s first political defector.


1796 The French government presents President Washington with the gift of a new tricolour flag. When he declines to hang it in Congress, French minister Pierre Ader complains it will be “hidden away in an attic and destined to become the fodder of the rodents and the insects that live there.” 


1797 When the federal government refuses to declare war on Britain, the French order the new US ambassador to France off its soil or face arrest. In the XYZ Affair, a three-man commission arrives from America to normalise relations but French foreign minister, Talleyrand, declines to see them without a $250,000 bribe paid upfront.


1798 France and the US fight an undeclared war at sea, beginning when a French privateer attacks a merchant ship and finds, too late, it’s the Delaware, an armed vessel with 24 guns and a 180-man crew. With a navy of only 16 ships, the US captures 86 French vessels during the Quasi War (1798-1800).


1800 Having denied publicly that his country has any interest in American territory, Talleyrand bulldozes Spain into transferring its Louisiana territories to France. He then reinforces New Orleans with 3,500 soldiers, closing the city to American commerce. Outraged, the Americans threaten war until Napoleon, busy fighting wars in Europe, writes off the whole affair by selling all 828,000 acres to the US for $15 million.


1808 France tries to prevent the US trading with Britain, its enemy. In April 1808, Napoleon seizes all American ships in French ports, confiscating goods worth $10 million. Over the next seven years, the French grab 558 American ships.


1831 After twenty years of negotiations, President Andrew Jackson finally manages to get France to agree to pay $4.6m for the illegal seizure of shipping under Napoleon but only on condition the Americans stump up $270,000 as compensation for French help during the US War of Independence. After the Americans make this payment, the French refuse to fulfil their side of the deal. In Congress Jackson warns that the US might take “hostile actions”. The French pay up but now demand an apology for the warning.


1861 During the American Civil War (1861-65), the French manoeuvre to weaken the US as a geopolitical rival by granting the Confederacy “belligerent rights”, the next thing to full diplomatic recognition, The South is encouraged to purchase goods and raise loans in France. Napoleon III lobbies Britain to intervene on the side of the Confederates by sending troops to break the Northern blockade. Four cruisers and two ironclad rams are constructed for the Confederacy in the French port of Bordeaux and only when it is obvious the North is going to win does France finally block their hand-over.


1861 Under the pretext of a debt-collecting exercise, the French land 30,000 troops in Mexico and install a puppet emperor under their control. After a string of military disasters, including a disastrous assault against smaller numbers in Pueblo, now celebrated by the Mexicans as a national holiday, El Cinco de Mayo, the French secure a tenuous hold over the country. As the Civil War ends, Washington threatens action unless the French quit Mexico – which they do with bad grace in 1867, leaving their puppet behind to be shot.


1886 After defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1869-71), the Third French Republic decides on some international bridge building and commissions sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi to build a 305-foot structure, the Statue of Liberty, as a gift from France to the American people. The French government do not pay for this gift; it is financed by public subscription (Americans actually raise $390,000 of the $740,000 cost). Bartholdi initially plans to model the face on that of his girlfriend but considers her too beautiful for the Americans so he uses his mother instead.


1917 America enters World War 1 (1914-1918) helping to prop up an exhausted France. Four million Americans mobilise to help France, and 120,000 die.


1918 President Woodrow Wilson, the first president ever to leave the United States, comes to France to help negotiate a just settlement. His proposals are sabotaged at every step by French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau determined to cripple Germany as a potential rival forever. When Wilson has a stroke, Clemenceau jokes: “Oh, he’s getting better is he? Couldn’t we bribe his doctors…?” The Versailles Peace Treaty, bulldozed through by the French, guarantees a new war twenty years later.


1941 The US enters World War II (1939-45). Relations with de Gaulle and the Free French Forces start badly when he threatens to fire on US troops attempting to secure the French islands of Miquelon and St Pierre.


1942 Vichy French forces attack American troops landing in French Morocco for “Operation Torch”. At Oran, US troops are machine-gunned in the water, suffering 90% casualties. Admiral Darlan, commanding French forces in North Africa, orders a ceasefire and commands the French ships at Toulon to steam for Africa. “Merde” replies Admiral De Laborde and scuttles the fleet rather than have it serve the Allies.


1944 June: the run-up to D-Day, de Gaulle refuses to record a radio message about the invasion since it was going to be broadcast after one by General Eisenhower. Pressured by Churchill, who reminds him that it isn’t going to be Frenchmen shot at on the beaches of Normandy, de Gaulle sulkily agrees but doesn’t mention the Allies at all nor the requirement that, during the fighting, French citizens should take directions from them. “He’s a nut”, decides President Roosevelt. The Americans take 100,000 casualties in the advance on Paris which de Gaulle demands is carried out by Free French General, Jacques Leclerc (nicknamed by Hemingway, “Lejerk”) though his forces are a hundred miles away and the Americans are in the city outskirts. 


1945 As the Allies mop up, de Gaulle sends troops into Italy to grab frontier land and orders them to resist any US attempts to remove them. “Psychopathic” is how new US president, Truman, characterises him. When he threatens to cut aid to France, the only thing keeping the economy going, French troops withdraw.


1947 US Secretary of State George Marshall oversees the donation of $13 billion US aid to rebuild Europe’s economies. Over the next eight years, France receives $5.5 billion.


1949 French communists combine with wine growers to pressure the government to ban Coca-Cola for “health reasons”. The Roman Catholic newspaper Témoignage Chrétien, calls it “the advance guard of a tremendous offensive aiming at the economic colonisation of France.” When it becomes clear that the US will respond by blocking all imports of wine and perfume from France does the government block the bill’s final enactment.


1954 As the Free World struggles to contain communism, the French beg the US for bombers, fighters and transport to help in their war in Indochina, all of which are provided. The US ends up paying 80% of French war expenses.


1960 De Gaulle returns to power as president of France, ushering in a long period of kneejerk anti-Americanism. Eventually he announces that though France considers NATO useful to her security, it is in fact an “American protectorate”. He demands that the thirty US military bases and 60,000 US troops based in France be withdrawn.


1967 General Charles Ailleret, French Chief of Staff announces that France’s small nuclear arsenal will not only be targeted at the Soviet Union but also the USA.


1968 The French government officially complains about the disparaging wisecracks against de Gaulle on Johnny Carson’s late night TV show. Carson replies that blaming him for de Gaulle’s lack of popularity was “like Sophia Loren calling Twiggy stretched out on one of her jumpers.”


1979 When the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan in 1979 France refuses to join Jimmy Carter in imposing sanctions on the communist superpower. It also spurns an American-sponsored embargo on Iran after Islamic revolutionaries seized the US embassy and hold 66 American hostages at gunpoint for a year.


1980 President Mitterand takes office and sets the tone for continuing French foreign policy by denouncing the US’s “jungle capitalism”.


1986 Ronald Reagan orders a bombing raid on targets in Libya in response to Muammar al-Qaddafi’s attacks on US personnel in Europe,. While the UK and Germany provide support, the French flatly refuse to allow US planes to fly over French airspace.


1990 When Iraq invades Kuwait, the UN Security Council unanimously approves a trade and financial embargo on Iraq. When the US and the UK argue to turn this embargo into an armed blockade, Mitterand declares his country cannot possibly support such a drastic action and his defence minister pointedly goes on holiday rather than get involved with Coalition efforts.


1991 Grudgingly, the French join the Coalition, sending 10,000 men to the Gulf (the carrier Clemenceau also goes but its jet fighters are taken off and replaced with trucks). It refuses to work under US command, making unified strategic planning difficult. Then Mitterand announces that French forces will neither fly over Iraqi territory nor march into it “for safety reasons”. After complaints by his own army, he lifts the ban 11 days later.


2000+ After 9/11, Jacques Chirac proclaims his support for the US but his government soon reverts to form. One minister dismissed the Bush administration’s attempt to isolate terrorist countries in the world as “Texas-style diplomacy”, French code for what it apparently sees as simple-minded pig-headedness. As the US and its allies targeted Iraq, the French ran interference in the United Nations and its diplomats toured the world to block action against Saddam Hussein. During the actual invasion, Chirac’s foreign minister (and now prime minister) Dominique de Villepin was asked if he wanted the US forces actually to win in Iraq. “I’m not going to answer”, he replied. Newspaper polls answered for him: a quarter of the French population wanted the US to be defeated militarily by the mass-murdering dictator.


2003 In one of the saddest symptoms of ant-Americanism in France, a statue in Bordeaux was covered in red paint and gasoline and set on fire by unknown vandals. This was the Bordeaux State of Liberty, a 2.5-metre (8 foot) replica of the real thing. Just a year earlier, a plaque had been added to commemorate the victims of the September 11th attacks.


2007 Writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy in a cafe interview with the BBC: “America [is] the nightmare that French intellectuals long feared, a nation built not on respectable ties of blood and tradition, but on the self-conscious desire to create something new.”

2007-10 The international financial crisis hit France harder than most countries. Since only 48 per cent of the French make a net contribution to the state through income tax (because so many are poorly-paid public employees whose earnings are below the tax threshold), attempts to cut the size of the public payroll have met with fierce resistance: France has half-a-million more public officials than Germany despite having only three-quarters of its population. The only way to balance the books has been to borrow. But France’s secretive banking system is the shakiest in the world (45 per cent of the debt of bankrupt Greece is held by French banks). Switzerland’s Centre for Risk Management estimates that the French government must inject up to €300 billion of capital – the highest level of support in Europe – to prop up its banking system. So who do the French blame? According to a poll in Libération newspaper, 85% of the French people considered the “American government and banks to be most liable for the financial crisis of 2007-2010”.

2011 The arrest of senior French politician and IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York on charges of sexually assaulting a hotel maid led to an outpouring of anti-Americanism amongst the French elite which concluded, as “public intellectual”, Alain Finkielkraut put it, that the United States has a "barbarian judicial system”.

2012 On 11 September Libyan militants attacked the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi and killed four people, including the ambassador. 30,000 ordinary Libyans demonstrated against the attack, in Benghazi itself and in Tripoli. In France, a mass protest by two hundred people occurred in front of the American embassy in Paris, in favour of the killings and blaming them on “American islamophobia”.

2012 On 15th May, François Hollande, leader of the Socialist Party, was sworn in as President of France after an election riddled with anti-Americanism. According to Jean-Luc Melenchon, figurehead of the Front de Gauche, the far-left party which took 9 per cent of the vote in the first round of voting, “the United States of America is the world’s biggest problem”. An admirer of Hugo Chavez, he has taken to calling the United States “the empire” and its European allies “vassals”. On the opposite end of the political spectrum are Marie Le Pen and her far-right Front National which polled 20 percent of the vote and fears the influence of American culture and the ascent of a “homo economicus,” a “compulsive consumer overfed on Coca-Cola and McDonald's ... who forgets his own history and tradition to the benefit of multinationals”. Her platform also includes leaving NATO's integrated military command. “The economic crisis gives us the opportunity to turn our back on the United States,” Le Pen told the Russian daily Kommersant on a trip to Moscow. After winning the election, President Hollande immediately ordered the withdrawal of the 3,400 French troops from the US-led Coalition forces in Afghanistan.

2013 Hollande threatened to overturn talks on a trade pact after revelations by the American whistle-blower Edward Snowden that the US routinely gathered information about its European allies, including France. “We cannot accept this kind of behaviour between partners and allies,” Hollande told journalists,“There can be no negotiations or transactions in all areas until we have obtained these guarantees, not only for France but also for all of the European Union.” His position was immediately undercut when Le Monde newspaper revealed that the DGSE, France’s own intelligence service, monitored not only communications within France but also those of other countries, such as the US. France quickly rejoined negotiations for the EU-US Free Trade 


So, is France really riddled with hatred of Americans? Well, yes and no. As far as the ordinary French people in the street are concerned, puffing their Salems and drinking their Coors, les Yanquis are basically OK according to most opinion polls. Then again, according to a Taylor Nelson Sofres survey released in 2003, the five traits the French public most associate with the US are: power, violence, inequality, wealth, and racism.

Real, long-term anti-Americanism though is bred into the bones of French governments, both of the Left and the Right. From de Gaulle to Mitterrand, anti-Americanism is their way of stressing France’s independence – and a safe way too because they know full well that the United States will never come down hard against a fellow member of NATO, of the WTO and the United Nations Security Council. It’s like flipping off your dad; he might withdraw TV privileges for a week but he’s not likely to nuke you.

France’s intellectual groupies also understand there’s no comeback for anti-Americanism in France, however vacuous or vicious. Post-modernist philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, wrote after 9/11: “All the world without exception dreamt of this event... It is they who acted but we who wanted the deed.”

The invasion of Iraq heralded many new books from thinkers like Baudrillard vivisecting the policy, personality and culture – or lack of it – of the United States, like Emmanuel Todd’s Après l'empire (After the Empire. 2003) or Philippe Roger’s L'Ennemi Américain (The American Enemy, 2004). None of this is new. Fifty years ago, the French bestseller lists included titles like L'Abomination Américaine (1930) and Le Cancer Américain (1931) and pamphlets railed against American life: “Out with the Yankees!”, wrote one more than usually berserk author. “Out with the people and their products, their methods and their lessons, their dances and their jazz! Let them take back their Fords and their chewing gum”.

And yet a few French intellectuals, only a few, are beginning to wonder if the anti-Americanism in France’s upper circles isn’t – how to put this? – wrong? Bernard-Henri Lévy is another French philosopher, even more contrary and publicity-seeking than Baudrillard. So willing is he to go against the flow that now he is beginning to think (as far as the French are concerned) the unthinkable:

‘Is anti-Americanism a horror?...”, he asked haltingly in 2004. ‘It is a magnet of the worst. In the entire world and in France in particular, everything that is the worst in people's heads comes together around anti-Americanism: racism, nationalism, chauvinism and anti-Semitism". 

Perhaps then, France’s hatred of Americans provides it with a twisted proxy to hate what is hateful in itself.



EXTRA….EXTRA….EXTRA….EXTRA….EXTRA


Reheating the Cold War. “Their [American] weight tends towards hegemonism, and the idea they have of their mission is unilateralism. And that is not acceptable.” French foreign minister Hubert Védrine, 1999, at World Trade Organisation talks explains why France is blocking a general global free trade deal until it gets special protection for French films; to punish America for winning the Cold War, apparently.

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