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Published on: December 3, 2009
America Needs France

This is one of the most unpopular headlines an American blogger can write, a guaranteed hit-suppressor.  But it is true nevertheless, as President Obama is now finding out. The immediate problem is Afghanistan; the President wants 10,000 troops from our allies to match the 30,000 the President is putting in.  Britain already has 9,000 and […]

This is one of the most unpopular headlines an American blogger can write, a guaranteed hit-suppressor.  But it is true nevertheless, as President Obama is now finding out.

The immediate problem is Afghanistan; the President wants 10,000 troops from our allies to match the 30,000 the President is putting in.  Britain already has 9,000 and has bravely committed to have more than 10,000 total within months.  Poland, still worried enough about both Russia and Germany to want to keep close to the United States, is also putting in another 600; Italy today committed 1,000 more troops to the fight. Overall, NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen says he can see where 5,000 new troops are coming from.

French Soldier in Afghanistan

The problem is (as usual, I can hear some of you saying) France.  France currently has 3,759 troops in Afghanistan and it is one of the few NATO allies who can really help there, but President Nicholas Sarkozy has been perfectly clear on the subject of reinforcements.  The answer is Non.

Loyal readers of this blog are not surprised.  Back in September I warned that President Obama had unintentionally given serious offense to our touchy Gallic allies and that sooner or later he could expect to find an elegant stiletto neatly implanted between his shoulder blades.

Le voila, as they say in the Hexagon: There it is.  No more troops for your crazy foutu Anglo-Saxon war in Afghanistan Monsieur Pense-Qu’il-Est-Lincoln-Mais-C’est-Actuellement-Jimmy-Carter.

There will be more trouble ahead; this ill wind has only begun to blow.

There are two tragedies here.  The first is that while Americans don’t fully get this, France can help us more than we think — especially with the kind of foreign policy President Obama wants to try.  The second is that France’s help is not all that hard to get.  Most of what France wants from us we can give.

Americans hate to be reminded of just how much like the British we are (the only people who hate this kind of talk worse than we do are the Brits).  But the apple hasn’t fallen all that far from the tree, and one of our most obvious resemblances to the Mother Country is our complicated relationship with La France.    We Angl0-Americans are like dogs and the French are like cats, and we get on each others’ nerves.  (For a good book on the last 300 years of bad blood between France and Britain read That Sweet Enemy by Isabelle and Robert Tombs.  Both are historians; he is British, she is French and they argue with each other all through the book. For a good book on French anti-Americanism, try Philippe Roger’s extraordinary The American Enemy.)

(It’s not hard to find traces of this deep and immensely satisfying hatred in popular culture.  In the Harry Potter books, for example, villains tend to have French names.  Voldemort means ‘flight of death’ in French; Malfoye is Anglicized French for ‘bad faith.’  Names like Weasely and Potter, however, are solid Anglo-Saxon citizens.)

But there’s more than culture at work.  In what some historians call the Second Hundred Years’ War, Britain with one third of France’s population and half its GDP, built the worldwide British system of trade, empire and investment on the ruin of France’s project for a global system of its own.  The American Revolution was one of the rounds in the long war that started with the 1688 overthrow of James II in England and ended with the fall of Napoleon in 1815.  (That was when the Duke of Wellington’s victorious army first brought Freedom Fries to Paris — a story you will find in That Sweet Enemy.)  From the French point of view helping the Americans win independence was a masterstroke of strategic genius that would break up the British Empire and establish a faithful new ally for France across the Atlantic.

This did not work out as planned.  George Washington tore up the treaty of alliance with France at the first convenient opportunity and by the time of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 the United States had become firmly established as on the whole an asset for the British world system and as a decisive counter to what remained of France’s global ambitions.  During the nineteenth century France rooted for Mexico in the Mexican War, the South in the Civil War, and Spain in the Spanish-American War.  Americans returned the favor: the Monroe Doctrine was partly a warning to France against trying to restore its Bourbon dynasty in the ex-Spanish colonies of Latin America.  The first thing we did after the Civil War was to send troops to the Mexican border as a heavy hint to Napoleon III that it was time for French troops to go home and stop propping up the tragically absurd dream of a pro-French Hapsburg ‘empire’ on the Rio Grande.  Americans rubbed salt in the wounds by rooting enthusiastically for Prussia in the Franc0-Prussian War (1870-71).

In the two World Wars and the Cold War we were technically allies, but there were times when both the Americans and the French had more respect for their enemies than for each other during those conflicts.  The British and the French felt much the same about one another. The British attacked the French fleet in 1940; the Americans humiliated the French and the British at Suez in 1956.  There are wars that cause fewer bitter feelings than Anglo-American alliances with the French.

And so we come to our own Lord Voldemort of a war, The War That Cannot Be Named, and we are at it again.  We and the French are on the same side in this conflict, and the French troops in Afghanistan have been fighting very gallantly– although this is something that the average American probably does not know.

All this bad blood suggests that no American or French president can make the relationship work perfectly.  The cat will hiss and the dog will growl.  But for a president like President Obama who wants to build bridges to the rest of the world, the relationship with France counts.  That’s not just because of a few thousand troops more or less in Afghanistan; it’s because France’s long history of conflict with les Anglo-Saxons gives it a unique world standing.

Ever since Napoleon went down for the last time, the French have been trying to preserve their identity, their culture and their self respect in an increasingly Anglo-Saxon world.  They have been on the whole pretty successful at this, and a lot of countries around the world admire their success and look to the French for ideas about how to deal with American culture and power.  For a leader like President Obama who believes in treating other countries and cultures with respect, France is a kind of litmus test.  If he can get this one right, he’s likely to handle some of the other prickly customers out there.

It’s also true that having France on side can help American diplomacy.  Precisely because France is so often and so freely critical of American efforts, if we can get them singing in tune others will take note.

Fortunately, France is the Aretha Franklin of international politics: what it wants is mostly R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  Some consultations with Sarkozy, some joint initiatives, some careful attention to a few French commercial and political concerns, and the skies would quickly clear.  Paris is a beautiful city; deciding to hold important international meetings there is not only popular with the French: the rest of the world’s diplomats and leaders like to go there too.

So, Mr. President: do yourself and the world (and the First Lady) a favor.  Spend more time in Paris and while it’s true that everyone in the world wants more face-time with you, it’s actually worth making an effort to clear up some time in your schedule for M. Sarkozy. He’s a smart guy and the country he leads counts more than you might think.

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