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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
The two countries hit their first snag before the eighteenth century ended. Franco-British strife broke out again in the early 1790s, and France, naturally enough, counted on the help of its transatlantic protégé. George Washington, risen from Revolutionary hero to first President, wanted nothing to do with a new war and issued a proclamation of neutrality. France responded with appeals, threats, and harassment of American shipping. When, in 1797, John Adams, the second President, sent ministers to Paris to smooth things over, the French added insult to injury. Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, the worldly, crippled ex-bishop who was then serving as France’s minister for foreign relations, let it be known that talks could not proceed until the Americans offered douceurs —bribes—to France and to him personally: American innocence was shocked, shocked by French experience. Minister Charles Pinckney’s exclamation “No, not a sixpence!” was transformed into an American rallying cry: “Millions for defense, not one cent for tribute.” An aroused Congress outfitted a small navy of excellent frigates, which, beginning in 1798, fought French privateers and frigates in the West Indies in a conflict that was war in all but name. Not until Talleyrand and France, facing other pressures, signaled that they wished to negotiate in earnest did the United States send new ministers. A treaty, called the Convention of Mortefontaine, was patched together and signed in September 1800, just in time to begin the new century in peace. And with a warning that Franco-American relations could be subject to sudden squalls.
It took longer for Franco-American cultural ties to develop, chiefly because France had such an enormous head start on a tiny, earnest backwater. Though American political theory and journalism of the late eighteenth century were worldclass, in every other field of intellectual endeavor we lagged behind Europe, and especially far behind a center of civilization like France. Once Americans began to stretch their intellectual wings, however, they flocked to France. Rich idlers from Henry Adams to Dick Diver made the pilgrimage; the strong dollar after World War I brought hordes of Bohemians, both real and would-be. France was particularly hospitable to African-Americans, from geniuses like Sidney Bechet to red-hot peppers like Josephine Baker.
France was more than a mise en scène for receptive travelers. American architects learned the urban grand manner at the École des Beaux-Arts. Generations of American painters learned every style from academic bombast to edgy modernism in Parisian studios. Despite differences in culture and experience, sometimes we gave as good as we got. The young T. S. Eliot wrote some of his early poems in French, as a way of digesting the modernism of such nineteenth-century literary pioneers as Charles Baudelaire, Jules Laforgue, and Stéphane Mallarmé. The French protomodernists were themselves great admirers of the American Edgar Allan Poe, Mallarmé writing a sonnet, “Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe, ” which he translated into English:
Mallarmé’s English is not quite English. His Poe is not quite Poe either. No doubt Eliot’s take on his French models would strike their French admirers as equally odd. But these misapprehensions are the fruitful mistakes that allow artistic influence to be stimulating rather than stifling.
Another example of a cross-cultural bank shot occurred in the world of movies. The French theorists and directors of the nouvelle vague looked beyond the stars and studio heads of Hollywood to its directors. Honoring Americans like Howard Hawks and John Ford, they created a director-driven theory of moviemaking that allowed them to reinvent the already robust French film industry. Their own edgy films in turn inspired American directors of the 1970s like Martin Scorsese. George Bernard Shaw joked that Britain and the United States were divided by a common language. At times it has seemed as if France and the United States were united by different languages.
(Sometimes the influences failed to take root. For years American kitchens copied high French cuisine, sometimes brilliantly. But the liberation of American cooking came not because of this tutelage but because of James Beard’s discovery of American regionalism. On the,other side of the ocean, French rock ’n’ roll does, and will always, stink.)
However much France and the United States have helped each other culturally, their political relations have been poisoned by a phantom resemblance. The American Revolution ended in 1783. In 1787 the Constitution was written. In April 1789 George Washington was inaugurated as the first President. Three months later the Bastille fell. The United States and France thus had nearly back-to-back revolutions, the first two of the modern world. Surely they would take the same course.