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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
Yet moderate liberalism is only one of the permanent strains in French politics, and often not the predominating one. To liberalism’s rivals in the French political mind, the United States is anathema, the image of everything hateful. To the far left, whether Jacobin or Communist, Americans are triflers, cowards, and false friends of liberty, if not outright oppressors. To the French right, which has degenerated from Catholic ultraroyalists to the rabble-rouser Jean Marie Le Pen, America is a hotbed of revolution and anarchic capitalism, a haven for Freemasons and Jews. To Bonapartists, the United States is simply a rival power. Napoleon Bonaparte began his tenure as first consul, in 1799, dreaming of a restored American empire. Before the ink on the signatures of the Convention of Mortefontaine was dry, he had forced Spain to return France’s ancient possession the Louisiana Territory, the inner third of the North American continent. Only when the army slated for occupation duty was destroyed in Haiti by disease and black resistance did Napoleon turn his thoughts to Europe, selling Louisiana to the United States for badly needed cash.
When Louis Napoleon revived the Empire, as Napoleon III, he also revived his uncle’s transatlantic dreams. Taking advantage of the American Civil War, he put Ferdinand Maximilian, a guileless Hapsburg archduke, on the Mexican throne, supported by French troops. Once Appomattox freed U.S. attention, Napoleon III abandoned his venture, and Maximilian was shot. Bonapartism, surviving in Charles de Gaulle, continued to see the United States as a rival, with some reason. Winston Churchill, for all his quarrels with de Gaulle, recognized him as the hope of defeated France during the darkest days of World War II, while Franklin Roosevelt, in one of his major diplomatic misjudgments, never trusted him and sought to come to some understanding with the collaborationist Vichy government. As postwar leaders, de Gaulle and his successors in the strong presidency that he bequeathed the Fifth Republic viewed the United States as the larger head of the Anglo-Saxon hydra.
The divergent legacies of George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte are at once similar and irreconcilable. Both men were revolutionary generals; both left a mark on the military and foreign policy traditions of their countries. Washington bound the United States to liberty and constitutionalism; Bonaparte sought to wed France to personal and national gloire. In his exile in St. Helena, the emperor sourly remarked that critics had wanted him to be “another Washington.” He plainly thought the expectation impossible and ridiculous.
A last destabilizing factor in Franco-American relations is the changing size of the two countries. Voltaire famously scorned French Canada as a few acres of snow. In the late eighteenth century the United States was a few acres of snow and swamp. Its population, at the time of independence, was less than three million. France, by contrast, with a population of 26 million, was one of the world’s superpowers. If the famous Americans who visited France between the two revolutions sometimes gaped like rubes, they had reason. They were rubes, in one of the focal points of the earth.
As the nineteenth century flowed into the twentieth, France began to succumb to the brutal grinding of demography. After one of his hecatombs, Napoleon Borraparte remarked that one night’s copulation in Paris would repair the loss. But there was too much loss, too little repair. By World War I France needed British and American help to defeat Germany. By World War II it could not defend itself. When the postwar United Nations awarded France one of five seats on the Security Council, it was no longer a recognition of current strength but a sentimental nod to past glory. This shift in the balance of Franco-American power breeds arrogance: arrogance on the part of the United States, the new cop on the world beat. But even greater arrogance on the part of France, which has so little else left.
But I would not end on such a dark note. In 1917 Americans arriving in France said, “Lafayette, we are here.” Why would Americans have said that? Because Lafayette had been there for us.
The Marquis de Lafayette arrived in the new United States in the summer of 1777. He was a 19-year-old captain in the dragoons, who had left France without permission. (The French government was following American developments but had not yet committed itself.) He wrote to his wife that he wished “to offer [his] services to this most interesting republic, bringing only … candor and good will.” He got here at a bad time for military newcomers. The American government had been offering commissions to European professional soldiers at a great rate, unleashing a flood of idealists and adventurers who expected to command American veterans as soon as they appeared. Gen. George Washington, who had to deal with the resultant bad blood, warily (and wearily) greeted the new arrival. “We are rather embarrassed to show ourselves to an officer who has just left the army of France,” he said. The young marquis said the perfect thing in reply: “I am here, sir, to learn, not to teach.” For the remainder of the war he was an ideal officer, fighting well, giving no trouble, defending Washington against envious rivals. The French government, when it finally came into the war, gave us more tangible help. But Lafayette gave us a symbol, and, despite his intentions, he taught a lesson, in generosity, idealism, and duty. When he died in 1834, he was buried in American soil, in two senses: in American dirt, shipped to France to hold his remains, and in American territory, for his grave is owned by the United States, like an embassy or a military cemetery.