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France And Us
The French helped us win our Revolution. A few years later we were at war with Napoleon’s navy. The two countries have been falling in and out of love ever since. Why?
August/September 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 4
Congress serves freedom fries, American military wives talk of freedom kisses, vandals in Bordeaux burn and deface a model of the Statue of Liberty. It’s a good time to remember that American-French relations have had many ups and downs. The ups include the Franco-American joint operation that was the Yorktown campaign; the tough-minded love letter to the United States that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America; fighting on the same side in two world wars; and cinéastes taking inspiration from John Ford. The downs include the Naval War of 1798, when French and American ships battled on the high seas; Napoleon III’s efforts to put a puppet on the throne of Mexico; Gaullist ambition and American impatience; and the current unpleasantness. The two countries hate each other as often as they love each other; the bouts of hatred are inflamed by the intervening bouts of love. If La Rochefoucauld didn’t write a maxim to describe the situation, he should have.
No other nation except Britain has been so deeply entwined in our history and our psyche. The Anglo-American relation is simpler to understand and to describe. Britain and America passed from a familial bond to rebellion and rivalry, to friendship. Language and institutions hold us together, even if there are enough differences to keep us distinct. The Franco-American tie is altogether more volatile, subject to gusts of passion. Each nation deceives the other, and each nation deceives itself about the other. The moment America or France creates a transatlantic idol, it finds feet of clay. Why is the tie so strong? Why are the forces that assail it no less strong?
The most obvious fact about Franco-American relations is how far back they go. We were ancient neighbors, for France colonized the St. Lawrence River valley long before Jamestown and Plymouth were settled. The French established friendly relations with powerful Indian tribes and explored the lakes and rivers of the interior, thereby gaining a grip on the first moneymaking product of North America: beaver pelts. For years the hardscrabble Puritans and gentleman planters of British North America scrambled to catch up.
It took a long time for Franco-American cultural ties to develop, chiefly because France had such an enormous head start on us.
The French were military as well as economic rivals. From 1689 to 1763 Louis XIV and Louis XV fought a series of wars against a shifting coalition of European powers—always led, however, by England. Each of these wars had its analogue in North America. The first three were known to England’s colonists by the names of their royal rulers: King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, and King George’s War (for George II). The final decisive struggle, known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War, was simply named by the colonists after their immediate enemies: the French and Indian War. During these true world wars settlers clustered along the Atlantic coast feared the descent of French navies, while pioneers huddling in the woods feared the raids of French-backed Indians. The strife left a deep imprint on the American mind. Benjamin Franklin’s first political triumph was to organize the defense of Pennsylvania against French and Indian attacks; George Washington and Daniel Boone fought their first battles on the Pennsylvania frontier. Decades after these colonial wars ended, James Fenimore Cooper mined them for his best-selling novel The Last of the Mohicans.
General Wolfe’s glorious victory and death on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 ended France as a threat to the people of the Thirteen Colonies. But less than 20 years later France was back in their lives as a friend. England’s imperial victory allowed the latent tensions in its empire to emerge; when the newly secure colonies sought independence, they looked for allies. France, eager for revenge, was happy to oblige.
The United States sent some of its best minds to Paris during the early years of its independence. Franklin, assisted by John Adams, represented the new nation during the Revolutionary War; after the peace they were succeeded by Thomas Jefferson. To manage such an important tie, we sent only our first string. On the whole these early Americans in Paris had a favorable impression of their hosts. Franklin became a huge hit, the worldly scientist and wily pol presenting himself as an American child of nature; his wise old face appeared on French medals, prints, plates, and cups. Jefferson had a more mixed time. “Conjugal love,” he wrote acidly, had “no existence” among the French, though he appreciated their love of music and took home cases of their wine. Adams, who shared Jefferson’s puritanical qualms about his hosts’ morals, nevertheless called the country “one great garden,” filled with “everything that can soothe, charm and bewitch.”
Not every American was convinced that the French had changed from monsters to benefactors. Benedict Arnold was led into treason by pride, greed, and the blandishments of his sexy Tory wife. His avowed reason for betraying his country, however, was his late-blooming fear of “the grasping hand of France.” But his was a minority view. Not only did the French alliance help us win the war, but, being befriended by such a sophisticated, wealthy nation gratified our self-esteem.
From the point of view of the United States, France was both the bogeyman of our national childhood and the protective older brother of our adolescence. From France’s point of view, we were a lost opportunity, a conquest manqué , that looked as if it might turn out well in the end. Both views were fraught with promise—and hidden pitfalls.