France Views America: Friend, Rival, or Both?

Mr. Young is a graduate student in history at Indiana University and a writer for the History News Service.

On May 6, the French elected a new president. At stake was not only the future of France but of the strained French-American relationship. The winner, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, proudly proclaims the United States "the greatest . . . power in the world." His opponent, Socialist Segol Royal, countered that the French "will not go down on our knees before George Bush."

At first blush, their disagreement seems rooted in current events -- the Iraq war and the growing economic rivalry between the United States and Europe.  But in reality it continues a two-centuries-old debate in France over the Franco-American relationship.

Royal's anti-American argument dates back as far as 1776, when Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris to lobby for French support of the American Revolution. Many French officials at the time wanted nothing to do with 13 rebellious colonies across the Atlantic. Interfering in a foreign war, they reasoned, would bring only trouble and might jeopardize the French position in Europe -- an obvious parallel to the French position on Iraq today.

France eventually entered the war anyway, but relations between the two countries remained rocky. American leaders didn't endear themselves to the French when they nearly declared war on France in 1798 and again during the War of 1812. The French, for their part, seriously considered joining the American Civil War -- on the Confederate side.

If historical bad blood between France and America bolstered Royal's position, there was history on Sarkozy's side too. Nearly a hundred years ago, amid the rising tide of war in Europe, the French politician Gabriel Hanotaux looked to the United States as a potential ally for France. An almost forgotten figure today, Hanotaux was a prominent conservative who would have been a kindred spirit to Sarkozy. In 1909, Hanotaux founded a France-America Society in Paris and New York. According to the organization's charter, its mission was "to do everything possible to strengthen the bonds between the United States of America and the Republic of France."

The Society's members did in fact do everything in their power to draw the United States into World War I on France's side. When the United States finally did enter the war in 1917 with an outpouring of support for France, French propaganda was at least partly responsible.

If history agrees with both Royal and Sarkozy, which vision of the Franco-American relationship did French voters choose? Historically, France has been the most friendly to the United States when French security was threatened,  particularly during both world wars. But French anti-Americanism was at its shrillest immediately after these wars, as France struggled to regain its footing in a changing world.

After World War I, American politicians wanted France to forgive German war debts, while at the same time insisting that the French repay their own debts to American financiers. The resulting financial squeeze was felt in France by people from all walks of life. The irate French wondered whether the price of American aid had been too high. Turning away from the brand of pro-U.S. diplomacy that Sarkozy advocates today, French leaders began to promote a muscular foreign policy that would force Americans to accept France on its own terms -- a sentiment Royal would wholeheartedly agree with.

In the aftermath of World War II, French anti-Americanism gained its most famous proponent in Gen. Charles De Gaulle, a hero of the wartime resistance movement. As president of France during the 1950s and 1960s, De Gaulle utterly rejected Sarkozy-style friendship with the United States, opting instead for a hard line against American interventionism similar to Royal's position.  De Gaulle pulled French troops out of NATO and refused to help the United States in Vietnam -- actions strikingly similar to France's opposition to the war in Iraq 40 years later.

The debate between Sarkozy and Royal over the United States is merely a modern incarnation of an age-old argument. But this time, the world may not be able to wait much longer for the French and the Americans to make up their minds about one another. Too often, France and the United States seem like two people playing chess on a football field, posturing genteelly while the real issues -- terrorism, climate change, and human rights -- rush at them like a wall of angry linebackers.

In times of war, the Americans and the French have always been able to work together, whether they liked one another or not.  Let's hope that the two countries can now learn to band together in peacetime to confront the global challenges ahead.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Dalek S Wu - 9/20/2007

There are a couple of innaccuracies and ommissions in Mr. Young's article.

First, he says "The French, for their part, seriously considered joining the American Civil War -- on the Confederate side," as if this was a stand-alone consideration. First of all, Britain also considered intervening on the Confederate side, and sent extra troops to Canada while Napoleon III sent troops to Mexico. Britain also built the ship that was to become the CSS Alabama, where France did nothing quite so belligerent. Secondly, as anyone who read Pierre Mizla's biography of Napoleon III could tell you, French industry was significantly dependent on cotton from the South.

The problem with Young's article is that this entire background to France "almost entering the Civil War on the Confederate side" is AWOL, and the otherwise ill-informed reader would think that France almost intervened purely out of spite or rivalry.

Second, the author has it rather ass-backwards when he simply says that deGaulle "refused to help the United States in Vietnam." One wonders if the author is even aware that Vietnam was part of the former French colony of Indochina. In reality, it was not the French, but rather FDR who encouraged Ho Chi Minh's communist terrorists during the Second World War (while he was underhandedly courting Maréchal Pétain as long as he was useable to him.) Furthermore, if the author had bothered to read Dr. Bernard B. Fall's books "Hell in a Very Small Place" and "Streets Without Joy," he would have known that the French Fourth Republic was fighting Ho Chi Minh from 1946 to 1954, and that Georges Bidault himself begged Ike for help during Dien Bien Phu, to no avail.

To entirely omit the 1946-1954 Indochina war and simply comment that "deGaulle refused to help America in Vietnam" when, in reality, tens of thousands of French Union troops left "leurs os blanchis" in Indochina a decade before the Gulf of Tonkin is somewhat disingenuous.

As well, Mr. Young, as is typical of youth today, only looks at big "MTV-moment"-type events in history. In reality, France and America have been cooperating behind the scenes for a long time. Simply google the names "Peter Julien Ortiz" and "Lucien Conein," and you will have one indicus of this. Here are two direct links to prove this fact. The first is a news article from two years ago


The second is a French Counterinsurgency manual. Notice the web site that is hosting the manual:


Saiful Ullah - 5/9/2007

reminds should be "remains"

to should be "two"

Saiful Ullah - 5/9/2007

I found this a good article with its elaborate detail on the historic relationship between France and the United States.

However, what reminds unanswered in my mind is the fact how to great Republics have differing dispositions in the 21st century despite their common roots and emphasis on democracy and human rights. I mean, wasn't it French writers such as Crevecoeur that influenced America's autonomy at its foundings?

Even today with Dominique De Villepin who holds a degree with French literature has a staunch opposition to the war on Iraq. Even Sarkozy despite his conservative background like Chirac was still opposed to the war.

It is interesting how two nations that hold many of the same ideals differ however as Young says in the final paragraph "Let's hope that the two countries can now learn to band together in peacetime to confront the global challenges ahead."--- Agreed!

History News Network