Ungrateful dishonest lazy The French seen by American soldiers in

‘Ungrateful’, ‘dishonest’, ‘lazy’: The French seen by American soldiers in 1944 |

At the end of the 15th century, it had taken Christopher Columbus’ caravels ten weeks to link Europe and the Caribbean. That’s about a week and a half per time zone crossed. Today you can swallow ten in half a day. And in times of universal ties, the triumph of globalization and cheap plane tickets, culture shocks are probably less common.

However, tourism is not a new phenomenon. Since ancient times, Greek travelers have whistled admiringly in front of the tombs of the pharaohs. They even left many inscriptions there that enchant archaeologists – the ancient graffiti was sort of the TripAdvisor of the day: “I can’t read hieroglyphs,” laments a note found near the tomb of Ramses VI. in the valley of Egypt was scrawled of kings; “I visited it and I didn’t like anything except the sarcophagus,” comments another. The Roman aristocrats, for their part, vacationed in their villas in Pompeii or Naples.

However, the streets were far from burdened with Juliists. In the Middle Ages, it was mainly merchants, messengers, armies on campaign, itinerant minnesingers and monks who professed their good word in all latitudes that traveled. Otherwise everyone was at home. Generations lived and died in the same square kilometer, oblivious to what was happening behind the nearby bell tower. The horizon was motionless.

First flight

All this changed from the 20th century. The transportation revolution that began in the last century with the development of rail links significantly reduced travel times (and costs). Thomas Cook and its all-inclusive vacations were there. After the Second World War, the surplus of unemployed war pilots – coupled with the technical progress of military aviation – led to the explosion of air transport: the horizon was accessible.

Despite these dazzling developments, the vast majority of foreign soldiers sent to the French front in 1944 never set foot outside barracks. No doubt to fill this gap, the US General Staff is distributing pamphlets to its soldiers to inform them of their objective. The Pocket Guide to France, stuffed in the pockets of GIs expected on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944, is the first edition.

A few months later, Europe is ruined but victorious, and a million and a half American soldiers are still there. In France we see them walking down the Champs-Élysées or handing out chewing gum to children. But is living together really that harmonious? According to a poll conducted in August 1945, half of Uncle Sam’s troops have a negative opinion of the French.

In connection with this, a new – anonymous – version of the American pamphlet, impishly titled “112 Gripes about the French” or “112 Complaints Against the French,” was published. It takes the form of a succession of clichés perpetuated by the soldiers (and undoubtedly much of American opinion), each accompanied by an explanation, an answer.

Alternative versions were also printed for soldiers leaving for the Philippines (29 complaints), Japan (35 complaints), or Australia (28 complaints), but they contain significantly less reason to complain about the locals.

“Garlic, Sweat and Perfume”

If we just read the headlines, we can see that Americans weren’t really happy about ending up in France. “In twenty-five years we have come twice to save the French. What have they done for us?” “When you ride the metro, the smell just knocks you out: garlic, sweat and perfume!” “The French spend all their time in cafes. They just sit and talk instead of working.” It’s everything from our nurtured and naughty hugs to not obeying speed limits. We would be “ungrateful”, “dishonest”, “lazy”, among other things.

Wisely, the book does not content itself with listing the clichés, but sets out to justify them by referring to the context of 1939-1945 and the history of the country. When a GI complains about the French’s lack of inventiveness, the author counters by listing some tricolor innovations: aluminum, cellophane (admittedly invented by a Swiss but installed in the Vosges), gyroscope, sewing machine, pasteurization, stethoscope, etc.

“Beware of those who do not criticize. Beware the country where criticism is forbidden. Beware of the land whose inhabitants obey
like sheep.”

Excerpt from issue 112 Gries about the French

The book explains the cliché that the French never wash, that the war has deprived the country of soap since 1940 and that you can only get it on the black market for an insane amount (125 francs a 310 grams).

If the French are accused of doing nothing for Americans, the issue recalls the tricolor support of George Washington’s Revolutionary War – 45,000 volunteers plus a $6 million loan made to the fledgling country at the end of the 18th century . The French contribution to the 1944 victory will not be forgotten. “The French didn’t win the war alone,” the author admits, adding: “Neither did we.”

Another particularly underhand claim: “French women are straight forward women.” The answer is scathing: “It’s just as stupid to generalize French women from those an American has met as it is to reduce all American women to those a man has met.” near a military camp.”

Finally, a widespread criticism: the French complain all the time. The book does not deny this and even justifies it with the deeply democratic and individualistic nature of our country. And finally for the US Army soldier: “Beware of those who do not criticize. Beware the country where criticism is forbidden [le terme allemand signifiant «interdite», ndlr]. Beware of the land whose inhabitants obey like sheep.” And bam!

The tradition of French bashing

Forgotten after the war, the brochure was reissued by Le Cherche Midi in 2003 with the more appropriate title Our Friends of the French. But the original version – in English – is still accessible and worth a look. If only because it softened a Franco-American relationship that was openly (and mutually) hostile at the time: “The Anglo-Saxons never agreed to treat us as true allies,” said de Gaulle in his memoirs.

A French farmer briefs an American corporal near Vierville-sur-Mer (Calvados), June 7, 1944. | Signal Corps Archives from Ireland and the United States via Wikimedia Commons

Above all, the book has the merit of debunking clichés that are still firmly entrenched in American opinion, broken in French bashing. Uncle Sam has long attributed French participation in World War II to the humiliating surrender of 1940, Vichy baseliness and anonymous denunciations. And ever since, American pop culture has enjoyed portraying the French as frog-eaters waving white flags…

This makes it easy to forget the heavy tricolor in war: 567,000 victims, more than half of them civilians. “You don’t have to like the French,” the magazine concludes. But you don’t have to hate them either. You can try to understand them.”