Charles de Gaulle: Why Your Parents Hate France

De Gaulle, the Gnarled Root

Why do Americans hate France?

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Your elderly neighbors, your irate father, and the pundit noise machine all have two things in common: (1) they are really angry about going bald and (2) they all hate France. They think France is the worst. France is beyond redemption. Even among all the anti-foreign nonsense these people spout, their statements on France stand out as completely insane.

Bill O’Reilly, for example, alleged that France is wholly responsible for creating its domestic terrorist threat – though when buses blow up in England, the same charge is not leveled. (The English know what they’re doing – England never surrendered during World War II, after all.) He, and others, also thought France was terrible for not supporting the War in Iraq and we should boycott them – but not Germany, which also opposed the war. (The Germans are honest people, unlike the French. The Germans make guttural noises and forge steel and hate Communism.) There is an anti-French mother lode in the gold mine of the American collective unconscious, and Bill O’Reilly is our dowsing rod.

This disappoints me. Sure, French-American politics may not a mutual lovefest, but that’s true anywhere: Japan, Brazil, India, China, Germany; all have their disagreements with the U.S. over important issues. And most individual French, especially those younger than 35, love the U.S. They love our music and movies. They love our Fuck You attitude, to the extent that it reminds them of themselves. They even love our steadfast – if largely rhetorical – support of democracy.

A friend of mine remembers going to see Independence Day (the first of many mistakes Will Smith made in space) in a movie theater in France: at the part where the president says that “This will be not just America’s Independence Day [against aliens], but the entire world’s Independence Day [against aliens],” the whole audience spontaneously erupted into cheers.

They cheered at that – at a pompous pro-American cheesespeech!

So why the hate? Why the outdated jokes about France fucking up? Why O’Reilly’s lunatic anger, incongruously directed at a majority-Christian country of white people who like to sell guns to the Third World?

These days, France-bashing seems like an honored American tradition, born in ancient history and just coasting along on cultural inertia. Even so, the whole idea had to start somewhere, sometime. There must be roots – roots striking enough to undo centuries of goodwill between America and the country that bankrolled our Revolution and built us the Statue of Liberty as a belated birthday present.

The thickest and most calloused of those roots has a name: Charles de Gaulle.

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You may remember de Gaulle as “France’s great WWII leader,” which he was, or perhaps as “an airport,” which he was not. De Gaulle was also a lunatic – and, often, a genius.

He refused to surrender with the rest of the French government in 1940, exiling himself to Britain and screaming at Churchill until the latter finally re-invaded at D-Day. He rebuilt France’s government over mere months in 1945, rolling over the swiftly balkanizing Resistance (a group of militants fighting variously for communism, democracy, or monarchy and held together only by their hatred of the Nazis) to bring them into his government like a baker mashing together angry car-bombing dough. He returned to politics in 1958, rewriting the entire French constitution to his liking – with a strong, legislature-battering president directly elected by the people – and got it approved by plebiscite over parliamentary cries of outrage. He saved France from fighting a guerilla war in Algeria, and he did it over the protests – and terrorist attacks – of one million forcibly repatriated French colonists.

He was a tricky, immensely practical person, believing in nothing save the innate grandeur of France. Well, also in the innate grandeur of himself.

Like his peers – Stalin, Gandhi – de Gaulle was a megalomaniac. But, unique among megalomaniacs, de Gaulle unwaveringly refused to take the fateful step to total control and overthrow any elected government. Propriety, common sense, and his own principles held him back: the only proper way to run a nation, he believed, was with the popular support born of democracy. The reason Germany had lost World War I, he believed, was its military elite losing touch with the true will of the people. And the most important facet of a democratic society, he believed, was its literature, its satirists, its muckrakers. When it was suggested that he imprison the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre for inspiring rebellion, de Gaulle swiftly replied: “One does not arrest Voltaire.”

A militarist who believed the army must always be obedient to the state, a by-fiat ruler who respected the supremacy of the republic and the scorn of its literati, a general who led France out of crisis after crisis while stepping on as many toes as possible: de Gaulle was an oddly admirable figure.