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France And Us

May 2024
13min read

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?

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.

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:

Such as into himself at last Eternity changes him, The Poet arouses with a naked hymn His century overawed not to have known That death extolled itself in this strange voice!

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.

Similar ideas appeared in each. one of the most commonly cited authors during the Constitutional Convention was Montesquieu (“the celebrated Montesquieu” Edmund Randolph called him). Thomas Jefferson, who was in Paris as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was being drafted, offered suggestions to its authors. Some of the active participants in both revolutions were the same. The Marquis de Lafayette, who had fought with distinction in several battles of the American Revolution, became the commander in his own country of the postrevolutionary National Guard, a popular force designed to defend the new National Assembly from reactionary plots. Thomas Paine, the English-born radical who had written Common Sense and The American Crisis to inspire the patriot cause in the United States, moved to France, where he was given citizenship and elected to the National Assembly as a member from Pas-de-Calais. “A share in two revolutions,” Paine declared, “is living to some purpose.” Filled with feelings of brotherhood, the French government conferred citizenship on other Americans, including Washington, James Madison, and “Jean” Hamilton. (“Curious example of French finesse,” Alexander Hamilton noted when he received the honor.) The two countries looked as if they would move along parallel tracks of liberty and enlightened reform.

One observer who did not believe it for a minute was Jefferson’s successor as American minister to France, Gouverneur Morris. Morris was a young man who had led a busy life. He had lost his left leg in a carriage accident when he was 28 and written the U.S. Constitution when he was 35. He came to Paris on business in February 1789, hoping to broker deals in American land and debt; President Washington, who enjoyed his caustic wit, named him minister in 1792. Morris’s first name signified his part-French ancestry. His mother, Sarah Gouverneur, was descended from Huguenots, or French Protestants, who had moved to New Amsterdam in the mid-seventeenth century. She had sent her son to a school in New Rochelle, New York, run by a Huguenot émigré who taught his charges French, and Morris was fluent enough in the language to write speeches for his French politician friends and little poems for his French lovers.

For all his French ties, Morris never believed that France could make its revolution work. Louis XVI he dismissed as a man of goodwill but slight ability, a “small beer character.” The liberal revolutionaries who took power after the fall of the Bastille, including his friend the Marquis de Lafayette, he dismissed as newcomers to the art of governing. Absolutism had drawn all power to Versailles, and the French had missed the apprenticeship in politics that Americans had served in their colonial legislatures and legal systems. The French “want an American constitution,” Morris wrote, ”…without reflecting that they have not American citizens to support [it].”

The French government gave us tangible help in our Revolution; but Lafayette gave us a symbol and taught us a lesson.

The revolutionary violence that Morris saw firsthand in Paris disgusted him. One evening, a week after the fall of the Bastille, as he stood waiting in the arcades of the Palais Royal for his carriage, he saw a mob parading the dismembered corpse of a royalist politician. “The head,” he wrote in his diary was “on a pike, the body dragged naked on the earth. Afterwards this horrible exhibition is carried through the different streets. Gracious God, what a People!” Morris’s gloomy forebodings were borne out. By the time he left his diplomatic post in October 1794, replaced by James Monroe, Lafayette had fled into exile, Louis XVI had been guillotined, and revolutionary governments had succeeded one another, as he wrote, “like the shadows of a magic lantern.”

Perhaps if the French had had more political experience, they would have shed less blood. Perhaps the experiences they had, of poverty and oppression, disposed them to be bloody. For whatever reason, French politics developed an extremism beyond anything in the United States. America’s record is blotted by racial and labor violence, as well as by the spectacular failure of statesmanship that was the Civil War. But the spirit of party has not been so venomous here.

One enduring strain in postrevolutionary French politics, that of moderate liberalism, finds the American experience congenial. Lafayette loved the United States all his life, not only because he had been successful and admired here but because he honestly shared its ideals. Talleyrand, who served every form of French government from kingdom to republic to empire as cynically as he shook us down in 1797, was an altogether different personality from Lafayette. Yet he too showed a warm spot for liberal constitutionalism whenever it was personally convenient for him to do so. When a Spanish diplomat admitted that he had never read The Federalist Papers , that handbook of American political philosophy, Talleyrand told him bluntly: “Then read it. Read it.” Alexis de Tocqueville, who was a politician as well as a political anthropologist, believed that the world had entered, willy-nilly, a democratic age. He hoped that the American experience of democracy, which he had studied in the early 1830s, could help guide the Second Republic, which was declared in 1848 (and was subverted, after only four years, by Bonaparte’s nephew Louis Napoleon). In the early years of the Third Republic, the great statue Liberty Enlightening the World was presented to the United States to commemorate the Franco-American alliance during the Revolutionary War.

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.

There are thousands of American soldiers’ graves in France, which the French should remember and be grateful for. But we, too, have a grave to remember.

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