Magazine article The American Conservative

Vive la Difference

Magazine article The American Conservative

Vive la Difference

Article excerpt

Some people here in London are not happy that France is rejoining the military command structure of NATO, whose 60th anniversary falls this month. I confess to having misgivings. How can the most glorious nation in Europe renege on Charles de Gaulle's brave decision in 1966 not to play the Anglo-American war game but instead put France first and expel all foreign troops from French soil?

That is scarcely the majority view, and the Poujadists among us have responded with their customary Franco-phobia. The Daily Mail, the newspaper that sets the press agenda here, resorted to satire, with harrowing results.

"Do we actually want the French back?" it asked, then answered with a page of anti-French jokes. The most offensive thing about the jokes was not that they were offensive--after all, most good jokes are--but that they were unfunny. Not even Bill O'Reilly would have laughed.

What is the first thing the French Army teaches at basic training? How to surrender in at least ten languages. What is the most useful thing in the French army? A rear-view mirror, so they can see the war. What's the shortest book ever written? French War Heroes. Why are there so many tree-lined boulevards in France? Germans like to march in the shade.

There was a time when the English had a better grasp of history and a better sense of humor. I have by my bed a reproduction, from the Bodleian Library, of a wartime handbook, Instruction for British Servicemen in France 1944. It was prepared by the Political Warfare Executive and issued by the Foreign Office in London, and it is generous, learned, paternalistic, occasionally ironic--a product of the British officer class at its finest.

There are several references to the good behavior of the German troops in France. There are also tributes to French courage and a warning to the men not to think themselves superior simply because Britain had not surrendered in 1940:

   If the Germans could have crossed
   our water-obstacle--the Channel--in
   the same way as they crossed the
   French water-obstacle--the river
   Meuse--are we quite sure that
   Britain would not have suffered the
   same immediate fate as France?

The handbook also makes much of the decency of the French people and the greatness of the French nation, warning the British Tommies not to behave like jerks:

   What interested Frenchmen was,
   and is, France: they think that
   France is a very great country, with
   a great record of civilization--and
   they have every reason to think so. … 
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