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French Lessons

George W. Bush isn't the first American to have had a hellish time dealing with our faux friends from France.

By 10.26.04

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Back in school, you may have read a bit about the 1779 naval battle between the Bonhomme Richard and H.M.S. Serapis. That's the one where Captain John Paul Jones shouted, "I have not yet begun to fight!" when the British ordered his surrender.

But you probably weren't taught -- at least I wasn't -- that one reason it was such a dogged battle was the "help" Jones got from his French allies.

At first a French ship called the, ahem, Alliance refused to aid Jones in the fight. Later, it fired on Jones, not the Brits -- and not by accident. The Alliance's captain, Pierre Landais, believed that once he sank Jones's ship he could then beat the exhausted Brits himself and claim the sole victory.

This fascinating historical nugget and many others like it are re-told in Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France (Doubleday, 304 pages, $24.95). National Review's John J. Miller and Mark Molesky, history professor at Seton Hall University, wrote this simultaneously engaging and infuriating book.

As the subtitle makes clear, this is no trans-Atlantic love-letter. It's dyspeptic, revisionist take on Franco-American relations. According to the authors the current friction between the two nations is nothing new. Indeed, it's closer to the norm.

"The tale of Franco-American harmony is a long-standing and pernicious myth," they write. "The French attitude toward the United States consistently has been one of cultural suspicion and political dislike, bordering at times on raw hatred....France is not America's oldest ally, but it's oldest enemy."

That's quite a charge and the authors have produced an impressive prosecutor's brief to back it up. From the colonial days to the Iraq war, they catalogue one episode after another of treachery, double-dealing, bullying (at least until France's military power faded) and even -- well, well, well -- unilateralism perpetrated by the aptly named Gauls.

THE COLONIAL PERIOD provides the toughest stuff. Native Indian tribes committed blood-curdling atrocities during the French and Indian Wars, a factor cunningly exploited by the French to terrorize the Americans.

During the siege of Fort William Henry, for example, a French officer warned that if the colonists did not surrender, "the Cruelties of the Savages cou'd not altogether be prevented."

It was in these struggles, not the American Revolution, that the colonists first started to come together as Americans, the authors argue. They do acknowledge that France's help was key to the revolution's eventual success, but they also point out that France did this mainly to deprive their ancient rivals the British of their colonies. The French monarchy certainly didn't care for idea that "all men were created equal." And when the colonists did win, France maneuvered against them during the treaty negotiations with England to limit the new nation's power.

Since then, even by the author's account, France has been less an enemy to the U.S. than a constant irritation. It is the geopolitical equivalent of a high-maintenance girlfriend: far more trouble than it is worth, but we never think to just throw the phone number away.

TO CITE JUST A FEW examples, it has extorted bribes from U.S. diplomats (The so-called "X, Y, Z Affair"), supported the South during the Civil War, violated the Monroe Doctrine by invading Mexico in 1861, and, in this century, pulled out of NATO and kissed up to the Soviets.

Miller and Molesky's list of outrages isn't even comprehensive, presumably because they didn't want to write a Stephen King-length tome: There's nothing, for example, on France's near scuttling earlier this year of the British-brokered deal with Libya to pay restitution to the U.S. for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103.

What has been the U.S. response to all this? Rescuing France in two world wars, a situation that seems to have only inspired further French antagonism thanks to their wounded pride.

Perhaps the most darkly comic moment of this dysfunctional relationship came when U.S. troops landed in North Africa during WWII. According to Miller and Molesky, the Americans actually had to fight their way through Vichy French in Algeria and French Morocco before they could get to the Nazis.

"France and her honor are at stake," Vichy's Marshal P�tain told President Roosevelt. "We are attacked. We will defend ourselves." Never mind that the U.S. troops were there to liberate them. (I had never realized my grandfather was lucky to part of the later D-Day invasion. He only had to be shot at by Nazis.)

The authors mean such stories to be damning stuff regarding the French -- and they are -- but it is not exactly flattering to the U.S. either. Like French foreign legionnaires, we always seem to want to forget and put these bad memories behind us.

As Miller's National Review colleague Rob Long put it last year, "Well, mes amis, that's France. And it's our fault for getting tangled up with them.... The French have nothing to be sorry for: They're simply acting French, as is their right. But what's our excuse?"

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About the Author

Sean Higgins is a writer in Arlington, Virginia.