Of the many epithets flung at the French in recent weeks, one particularly colorful phrase found its way into the vernacular: “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” This delightful slander first appeared in an episode of “The Simpsons,” where it was meant as a joke, and then was repeated on a conservative Web site, where it was meant as a statement of fact. Soon the phrase was all over those dispassionate, measured and thoughtful political talk shows that litter the news channels every night.
Forget, just for a moment, the ahistorical slur concerning the honor of France’s armed forces. I’m not entirely certain what pro-war advocates have against cheese consumption—apparently they regard such a diet as insufficiently militaristic and, dare one say it, hopelessly unmanly. Woe, then, to the dairy farmers of Wisconsin, who may be regarded as traitors for providing aid and comfort food to antiwar anti-Americans. Traitors? Why not?
One of the more prominent voices in American political culture today, a writer named Ann Coulter, is about to bring out a book that apparently accuses American liberals of real, punishable-by-death treason for, oh, the last 50 years or so. (The book is not out yet, but Ms. Coulter has been talking about it on television.)
So this is how we debate the issue of war and peace in our time: we call people names. Worse yet, some of those responsible for setting the sophomoric tone of the debate are doing so just for the fun of it. One commentator recently admitted that some of the French-bashing in the American media is just “shtick.” Isn’t that comforting? So the war-whoopers don’t really mean it when they accuse the French of treachery, deceit, cowardice and cheese-eating—they’re just having a little fun. (After all, everybody knows those French people eat their steak raw. Talk about manly!) But not everybody seems to be in on the joke. Inflamed, impassioned and outraged, consumers of the anti-French shtick are organizing boycotts of champagne, wine and, yes, cheese. No mention, at least not yet, of frog’s legs, Exocet missiles and books about a little orphan named Madeline.
There also has been no mention of the sufferings and heroism of the French people in two of the 20th century’s greatest catastrophes—the two world wars. France knows and understands the horror of modern warfare in a way America does not. The pro-war conservative media have offered us images of American graves above Omaha Beach on the Normandy coast, reminding us that American soldiers died to liberate France on D-Day and in the months that followed. But nobody, especially not the French, is denying the role America played in liberating western Europe from the barbarism of Nazi Germany. But those images from Normandy ought to remind us not only of American sacrifice, but of France’s suffering as well. After all, the battle of Normandy, one of history’s greatest and bloodiest episodes, was fought on French soil. So was the first Battle of the Marne, the terrible opening act of World War I. The French 6th Army (along with a British Expeditionary Force) defeated the Kaiser’s attempt to capture Paris and end the war quickly. The cost: a quarter of a million French casualties—in a single battle! French reserves were sent to the front in Parisian taxicabs.
The columnist George Will, while far too elegant to use so vulgar a phrase as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” still couldn’t help but find reason to show contempt for France’s armed forces. How many men would it take to defend Paris? he asked. Ah, we’ll never know, he continued. It’s never been tried. Hilarious! But what of those 250,000 French soldiers who died or were maimed at the Marne? They don’t count, because they died in World War I, and Americans don’t know of or care about that particular conflict.
At what point, incidentally, will the Francophobes recall that the French were fighting Nazi Germany while we were luxuriating in magnificent neutrality in 1939 and 1940? When will somebody mention that while the French army did, in fact, surrender in the face of Hitler’s blitz, thousands of French soldiers enlisted in the Free French army under Charles de Gaulle, and other brave French men and women fought the Nazis as members of the Resistance?
The French do not deserve the beating they have received at the hands of American right-wing, pro-war commentators—the very people, incidentally, who often regard themselves as the protectors of history and tradition, but who clearly need to brush up on their world war lessons. (I’d recommend that they read The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman, which shows how the armies of Europe, including the French, blundered and blustered their way to war in 1914.)
It is certainly true that French public officials can often be difficult and uncooperative. President Jacques Chirac did nothing to help his nation’s image when he lashed out at America’s allies in Europe, insulting them with language fit for snarling commentators on the Fox News Channel.
All the same, it’s worth remembering that the French stand accused only of pleading for peace. They do not defend the bloody regime of Saddam Hussein. They are not trying to appease Iraq. They share America’s belief that Iraq should be disarmed. The French simply believe that the goal of disarmament can be achieved without war.
For this, they are subjected to ridicule and contempt. You’d never guess that it was a French fleet off the coast of Yorktown in 1781 that helped bring about American independence.