As our coaches used to say, "Okay, people, settle down and listen up." We have been enjoying a lovely little spate of French-bashing here lately. Jonah Goldberg of the National Review, who admits that French-bashing is "shtick" -- as it is to many American comedians -- has popularized the phrase "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" to describe the French. It gets a lot less attractive than that.
George Will saw fit to include in his latest Newsweek column this joke: "How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris? No one knows, it's never been tried." That was certainly amusing. One million, four hundred thousand French soldiers were killed during World War I. As a result, there weren't many Frenchmen left to fight in World War II. Nevertheless, 100,000 French soldiers lost their lives trying to stop Hitler.
On behalf of every one of those 100,000 men, I would like to thank Mr. Will for his clever joke. They were out-manned, out-gunned, out-generaled and, above all, out-tanked. They got slaughtered, but they stood and they fought. Ha-ha, how funny. In the few places where they had tanks, they held splendidly.
Relying on the Maginot Line was one of the great military follies of modern history, but it does not reflect on the courage of those who died for France in 1940. For 18 months after that execrable defeat, the United States of America continued to have cordial diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany.
One of the great what-ifs of history is: What would have happened if Franklin Roosevelt had lived to the end of his last term? How many wars have been lost in the peace? For those of you who have not read Paris 1919, I recommend it highly. Roosevelt was anticolonialist. That system was a great evil, a greater horror even than Nazism or Stalinism.
If you have read King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild, you have some idea. The French were in it up to their necks. Instead of insisting on freedom for the colonies of Europe, we let our allies carry on with the system, leaving the British in India and Africa and the French in Vietnam and Algeria, to everyone's eventual regret.
Surrender monkeys? Try Dien Bien Phu. Yes, the French did surrender, didn't they? After 6,000 French dead in a no-hope position. Ever heard of the Foreign Legion? Of the paratroopers, called "paras"? God, the trouble we could have saved ourselves if we had only paid attention to Dien Bien Phu.
Then came Algeria for the French. As nasty a war as has ever been fought. If you have seen the film Battle of Algiers, you have some idea. Five generations of pieds noirs, French colonialists, thought it was their country. Charles de Gaulle came back into power in 1958, specifically elected to keep Algeria French. I consider de Gaulle's long, slow, delicate, elephantine withdrawal one of the single greatest acts of statesmanship in history. Only de Gaulle could have done it.
Those were the years when France learned about terrorism. The plastiquers were all over Paris. The plastic bombs, the ones you can stick like Play-Doh underneath the ledge of some building, were the popular weapon du jour. It made Israel today look tame. For France, terrorism is "Been there, done that."
The other night on 60 Minutes, Andy Rooney, who fought in France and certainly has a right to be critical, chided the French for forgetting all that sacrifice (100,000 Frenchmen died trying to stop Hitler in 1940, and 150,000 Allied troops died to liberate that nation in 1944). But I think he got it backward: The French remember too well.
I was in Paris on September 11, 2001. The reaction was so immediate, so generous, so overwhelming. Not just the government, but the people kept bringing flowers to the American embassy. They covered the American Cathedral, the American Church, anything they could find that was American. They didn't just leave flowers, they wrote notes with them. I read over 100 of them. Not only did they refer, again and again, to Normandy, to never forgetting, there were even some in ancient, spidery handwriting: "Lafayette is still with you."
Look, the French are not a touchy-feely people. They're more logical. For them to approach total strangers in the streets who look American and hug them is seriously extraordinary. I got patted so much I felt like a Labrador retriever. I wish Andy Rooney had been there.
This is where I think the real difference is. We Americans are famously ahistorical. We can barely be bothered to remember what happened last week, or last month, much less last year. The French are really stuck on history. (Some might claim this is because the French are better educated than we are. I won't go there.) Does it not occur to anyone that these are very old friends of ours, trying to tell us what they know about being hated by weak enemies in the Third World?
Molly Ivins writes for Creators Syndicate and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.