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Les Bêtes Fromages

America adores its clichés about French culture—skinny women, hot sex, and “surrender monkeys.” But the Mali intervention shows France in a different light. From 2011, an appreciation for France’s history of conquering and oppressing the world.

If Dominique Strauss-Kahn is convicted on charges of sexual assault, his case may become the ultimate example of French Socialist hypocrisy: egalitarian ideals, but in reality, une bête sauvage. And if he's found innocent, it will expose a huge flaw in the American justice system where politicians can be brought down with only an accusation of impropriety.

Guillermo Riveros, "Contradepredador: Howler monkey," 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Hous Projects.

Either way, at least people will begin to forget about “Cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”

That quote from The Simpsons (ep. 22, “'Round Springfield”) was always out of place coming from a show known for its progressive politics. Certainly the French enjoyed fine cheese, but “surrender monkeys?" To those who knew the reference, the line was an offhand remark about France's defeat in World War II. It implied that because the French were too busy indulging in a laissez-faire lifestyle of eating snails, smoking cigarettes, and pondering the meaning of existence, the Nazis only had to traipse around the Maginot Line to steal the berets off their heads.

When France vetoed the UN Resolution on the Iraq War, the Simpsons' quote instantly became fodder for right-wing pundits and the jokes multiplied. The New York Post used it as a blaring front-page headline in a 344pt font. Prank websites dedicated to mocking “French Military Victories” became prevalent. Travel guides began issuing warnings to Americans not to make light of military losses while traveling through the French countryside, as the locals might not take the ribbing so kindly.

When The Simpsons movie came out in France, Le Monde tarred it as an extension of American anti-French sentiment:

Le French-bashing de la droite américaine, au sujet de l'Irak, a emprunté à un personnage de la série la caractérisation des Français comme des "singes capitulards et mangeurs de fromage". Pourquoi ces créatures d'intérieur ont-elles ressenti le besoin de sortir sur la place publique en se répandant sur les écrans des multiplexes du monde entier?

[Google's rough translation: "The French-bashing of the American right, about Iraq, borrowed by a person from the show characterizes the French as "surrender monkeys and eaters of cheese." Why do these creatures of the interior {nerds?} feel the need to go out into the public by spreading this on the screens of multiplexes around the world?"]

The U.S. and France used to be such chums. We swapped revolutionary ideologies and supported the egalitarian overthrow of each other's regimes. Throughout the 1800s and into the Jazz age, American writers, scientists, and politicians would take month-long voyages across the Atlantic just to get a glimpse of La vie Parisienne. They'd visit the Sorbonne without knowing a word of French and relish everything Paris had to offer: fine food, intelligent discussion about surgery, and an escape from America's puritanical atmosphere. In return, America would fête General Lafayette whenever he showed up in the States, and they'd all sing together "La Marseillaise."

Immediately after the liberation of Paris in World War II, American troops were given the hero's welcome they richly deserved and many stayed around to soak in the glow of Paris at peace, but soon cultural differences arose. According to Howard Levenstein’s thorough history on the subject We’ll Always Have Paris, the French despised the Americans’ lack of refinement and their belief that French women were easy, and the Americans grew frustrated with the proliferation of Parisian con-artists and what they saw as French shiftlessness. Maître-d'hôtels at upscale brasseries would scoff at off-menu requests for well-done “le surf-et-turf” with ketchup; Americans shuddered at the state of French plumbing.

At some point the relationship decayed to the point that jokes originally intended for the Italian army after their defeat in North Africa were repurposed to ridicule the French for their inability to defend Paris. References to what the Italian flag looked like (“A white cross on a white background”) or how many soldiers it takes to screw in a light bulb with their hands up became attributed to the French, and the cause of their defeat became gastronomical hedonism and cowardice, rather than a reluctance to die for Mussolini’s crazy spells.

I imagine all of the recent French-bashing during the aughts—from Freedom Fries to Bill O'Reilly’s feigned French product ban—must have come across as slightly incomprehensible to the Gallic sensibility. France has not spent the larger portion of its existence conquering and oppressing the world just to be considered des singes capitulards.

The whole of French history is an unending stream of bloodshed, guillotines, and torture. Considering that the French are now known for philosophical meditation and eating well is a great accomplishment of public relations.

After all, this is the selfsame empire that slaughtered its way through most of Europe under Napoleon and used its trans-national power to colonize Haiti, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Chad, Algiers, Tahiti, Polynesia, Togo, Madagascar, Mauritania, Benin, Niger, Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Mali, Congo, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, French Guiana, Morocco, Quebec, Eastern Canada, the American Midwest, and Louisiana. From Charlemagne, Louis XIV, and Joan of Arc on down to de Gaulle, the French murdered Moors, Turks, and Jews, killed Spaniards, slaughtered Huguenots, battled Brits, and ran their own little-known Inquisition. There are the victories at the Battle of Normandy, Soissons, and Hastings, the Seige of Ceresole, Ardres, and Orleans, never mind the Hundred Years War and a seemingly unending stream of religious crusades against any heretic they could pinpoint. 

The Knights Templar—that infamous secret society of religious crusaders and paladins who were bonded by vows of strict honor and chastity to supposedly protect the Holy Grail—they were eventually called sodomites by the French Catholic church and thrown in prison.

In the 1200s, when the Cathars thought they could preach a life of vegetarian, Christian dualism, aestheticism, and non-procreative sex, the French subsequently slaughtered them by the thousands and set their bodies on fire during the Albigensian Crusade.

The whole of French history is an unending stream of bloodshed, guillotines, and torture. Considering that they are now known for philosophical meditation and eating well is a great accomplishment of public relations. Ironically enough, it was Napoleon's contributions to food preservation that allowed his armies to "travel on its stomach" and subjugate people in far-off lands with the help of peas in champagne bottles (true fact) and canned foie gras that could be opened with a bayonet. 

As for the Maginot Line and France's defeat in WWII, well, that gets complicated. Prior to invasion, the idea in Paris to build a series of military fortresses along the German border was hailed as strategic genius. France had been devastated after World War I's prolonged trench warfare, so a pre-emptive defense system was in its interest should Germany get pushy. The thinking was that if Germany tried to go around the line they would be invading a neutral country, Belgium, slogging through dense terrain in the Ardennes forest before confronting the bulk of the French army on the other side. Everything worked according to plan except that Germany's blitzkrieg attack ran roughshod through Belgium, defeated the combined French and British legions, and sallied relatively unbothered straight to the sea.

There are an unlimited supply of military books and forums to debate whether France could have defeated Germany if only the line had been extended into Belgium or the forces manning the line had flanked the German army in the Ardennes. Should France have invested in mobile military units rather than stationary ouvrages? Were they fooled by the Schleffen Plan? I have absolutely no idea.

Either way I would have a difficult time disparaging the thousands that died as “surrender-monkeys.” Even if it was among the biggest doozies in the history of military foundering (most likely not), the French can rely on a lengthy past of conquests and invasions where they handily stole the Pickelhaube helmets off of any number of Austrian viscounts. And someday the American caricature of what French people are actually like may slowly get closer to being accurate.