SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

FRANCE EXPLAINED

Oldest allies: The best and worst moments of the French-American relationship

From military support to submarine disputes, statue-giving to French fry boycotts, the relationship between France and the USA has had its ups and downs over the last 250 years. As Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden meet in Washington, we take a look at some of the highs and lows.

Oldest allies: The best and worst moments of the French-American relationship
A photo taken in September 1944 shows the presentation under American, French and British flags of the city of Brest, Western France, by Major General Troy H. Middleton to Brest Mayor Jules Lullien. (Photo by US ARMY SIGNAL CORPS / AFP)

Franco-American relations go back a long way, with US diplomats and politicians often referring to the French as “our oldest allies” – a callback to when French king Louis XVI decided to support the American Revolution led by George Washington.

However, it’s not always been smooth sailing.

You can hear The Local team discuss the Franco-American relationship with special guest Jim Bittermann, the veteran CNN correspondent, of the latest edition of the Talking France podcast. Download it here or listen on the link below. 

As Emmanuel Macron enjoys a state visit in the US – the first state visit of the Biden presidency – here’s a look at the best of times and the worst of times. 

Best moments

The Revolutionary War – Without the help of the French, the Americans would have struggled to win their War of Independence. In February 1778, General Washington made an unusually optimistic announcement, saying that France’s decision to join the war effort had introduced “a most happy tone to all our affairs”.

In 1781, the French fleet played a significant role in the American victory in Yorktown, Virginia, which put an end to the Revolutionary War. 

When the time came for Great Britain to recognise the sovereignty of its former colonies and sign a peace treaty with them, the signing took place in Paris, on September 3rd, 1783.

France’s military assistance for the United States during the war did come at a significant economic cost – the country found itself over a billion livres (the French currency at the time) in debt. Not long after, France embarked upon its own revolution.

During and after the Revolutionary War, the US was home to several francophiles, such as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. As for France, French architect and urban designer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who left his home country in 1776, went on to design the new capital of Washington D.C. There was also Marquis de Lafayette who went on the be a national hero in both countries, having served as a General in the American Revolution and helping to draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man during the French one.

The Statue of Liberty – Otherwise known as La Liberté éclairant le monde (Liberty lighting up the world) the statue is a monument to Franco-American friendship. 

The 93-metre-tall Lady Liberty – who has welcomed scores of immigrants “yearning to breathe free” – is actually French. Dedicated in 1886, the statue was a gift from the French people, intended to strengthen the relationship between the two countries.

The idea originally came from French historian Édouard de Laboulaye, an anti-slavery activist and avid supporter of the Union during the Civil War. He hoped that the statue would represent liberty and symbolise the freedom of thought repressed under Napoleon III’s regime. 

Eventually, it was sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi who brought the statue to life (and reputedly modelled her face on his mother) helped by a famous engineer known for another and tall structure – Gustave Eiffel.

READ MORE: French history myths: France only sent one Statue of Liberty to the US

First and Second World Wars – After almost three years of neutrality, the United States joined World War I, sending about 10,000 men a day during the summer of 1918 to the Western Front. The introduction of the American troops helped to strengthen the Allies and aided them in winning the war. In 1918, Woodrow Wilson sailed to France, becoming the first American President to visit a European country while in office. 

And about two decades later the US also joined the Allied side in World War II – thousands of American soldiers died on the beaches in Normandy during the D-Day landings of 1944 and are commemorated each year in June by French and American representatives.

However, in both cases, the post-war period proved more fractious.

After World War I, when President Wilson sought to negotiate his ‘Fourteen Point’ peace plan, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau is reported to have said: “Mr Wilson bores me with his Fourteen Points; why, God Almighty has only 10!” 

A home for America’s ‘Lost Generation’ – Many years after winning over the heart of Benjamin Franklin, other great American thinkers – artists and writers – found a home in Paris.

During the period following World War I, figures from Paul Bowles and Ernest Hemingway to Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, used their time in France to inform their art. Paris offered what many saw as a freer, more expressive and open environment (not to mention the fact that the exchange rate at the time meant that they could live well in Paris on just a few dollars a month). 

The worst moments

But of course, it’s not all sunshine and wine – here are some of the more strained moments in the long relationship.

The Quasi-War – American and French friendship lasted for the first few years after the US gained its independence, but relations turned sour soon after the start of the French Revolution, and the beheading of King Louis XVI.

France had lent vast sums to the US to aid in their struggle for independence, but the Americans suspended repayments of these loans, claiming that the new French Revolution made previous agreements null.

Things became even worse when the new French republic found itself at war with Great Britain, as the United States declared itself neutral in the conflict, claiming that their Treaty of Alliance with France had been with the now-deceased King Louis XVI, so was no longer valid. 

The US needed to continue trading with British colonies in the Caribbean and so negotiated the Jay Treaty. For the revolutionary government of France, this treaty was proof that America had decided to trade with France’s enemies, and therefore France ought to treat the Americans like enemies. French privateers went on to seize US merchant ships.

While war was never officially declared, American naval ships did have engagements with French naval ships.

Napoleon’s support for the Confederacy – Technically, during the American Civil War, France remained neutral. However, Napoleon III was known to have favoured the Confederacy, in part due to his desire to protect the cotton trade.

France also wanted to expand its influence in Mexico, and sent troops to help Mexican monarchists with their plan to restore the monarchy.

This led to the union building up American military presence on the border with Mexico, and eventually – between the troops and diplomatic measures taken – Napoleon was persuaded to withdraw his troops.

De Gaulle v America – After World War II the Allies instituted AMGOT – the Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories – in the defeated countries of Italy and Germany.

However US President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed AMGOT should have been implemented in newly-liberated France too – primarily because he found it impossible to work with General Charles de Gaulle, who he believed had the potential to act as an authoritarian leader.

He was eventually persuaded by the American General Eisenhower to drop the plan, but unsurprisingly, the post-war period for Franco-American relations was at times tense.

For his part, De Gaulle strongly opposed what he saw as American hegemony, expelling American military units from French soil and partially withdrawing France from NATO.

The Iraq war – One of the most unhappy chapters in the book of Franco-American relations is that of the Iraq War.

While the French did express solidarity with the United States after 9/11, they did not support the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq with then-President Jacques Chirac refusing to join the US-led coalition in 2003.

In a tit-for-tat response, the Americans renamed French fries as “freedom fries” while US cartoon The Simpsons got on board, coining the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” to describe the French. 

READ MORE: Myth-busting: Are these 12 clichés about France actually true?

According to polling, French public opinion of the United States plummeted in an unprecedented drop as soon as the United States invaded Iraq. Those low opinions remained in place until the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

Submarines – And finally, the relationship between France and the United States deteriorated greatly after what became known as a AUKUS affair in 2021.

Essentially Australia backed out of an agreement to buy submarines from the French and instead, the US ended up selling its own submarines, leaving the French out of the trilateral defence pact. In response, France threatened to recall its ambassador to the United States.

US president Joe Biden has since somewhat-apologised – calling the deal “clumsy” and saying that it “was not done with a lot of grace” – and when it came to the first state visit of his presidency, he chose Emmanuel Macron in what many see as a a way of smoothing ruffled French feathers. 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

FRANCE EXPLAINED

Where does the ‘romantic, sexy French’ stereotype come from?

One of the most enduring stereotypes about the French is that they are romantic, charming, seductive and just downright sexy. We know this label can't possibly apply to an entire nation - but where does the image come from? And how do the French themselves feel about it?

Where does the 'romantic, sexy French' stereotype come from?

Let’s get one thing clear – some French people are very, very sexy. Others are about as appealing as completing your French tax declaration. And the same can be said for all nations – so how did the anglophone world come to believe that all French people are innately stylish, beautiful and seductive?

The stereotype

In the anglophone world, the cliché about the French is that they are uniquely stylish and beautiful, sexually liberated and very interested in the world of love and romance.

In the case of French women they are alluring but aloof while Frenchmen – we are led to believe – are charming but faithless, always on the lookout for the next potential conquest and, of course, superb in bed.

While people like this probably exist, it’s far from the norm and yet this stereotype is remarkably enduring. 

We asked Emile Chabal, a Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh and a specialist in European political and intellectual life of the 20th century, to explain more.

He told us: “Traditionally, and I think certainly in the 20th century, the dominant ideal of romance and style that has come out of France has involved beautifully cut clothes, elegant interactions between very eloquent people and a society that is very free in terms of interactions between men and women. 

“And all of these stereotypes come together to form an image of the French as a particularly romantic people and France as the home of love.

“And I think these stereotypes in many ways are wrong – France in the 20th century is a very conservative society, gender roles are really quite strictly policed and France is of course a Catholic country, so that has imposed strict roles on men and women and how they can interact.

“But I think a combination of French cinema, French music and prominent women in French intellectual life, such as Simone de Beauvoir, all add up to create an idea of France as a country that is particularly open and free, especially in the domain of love and sex.” 

The history 

So when did the anglophone world start to believe that the French have a hotline to love?

Emile said: “From at least the 15th and 16th century the French are known in Europe for being stylish and fashionable in terms of clothing. But to my mind it’s not until the 20th century that the association with France and sexiness is really cemented.

“What happens is that the French succeed in packaging and selling a certain type of ‘Frenchness’ to foreigners, and this works particularly on Americans, and a major source of this stereotype comes from America.”

Yes, anyone who believes that this is purely to do with self-evident French sexiness might be disappointed – the ‘French style’ stereotype was deliberately packaged and sold by marketing companies, artists and even the French government.

Over the decades this French ideal has been used to sell everything from fashion and perfume to holidays and mid-range family cars (such as Papa and Nicole in the below advert).

Emile said: “The domain of fashion is really important – haute couture is a very conscious branding of Frenchness. The way that fashion houses like Dior and Yves Saint Laurent – which were subsidised by the State – become global is really tied up with French attempts to develop this as a soft power – at a time when France’s ‘hard power’ – that is, military power – is under question after World War II, decolonisation, the formation of the European union. 

“From 1960s onwards the French state starts to subsidise culture in a very direct way, whether that’s subsidies for film, fashion events etc. It’s not an accident that certain people are being given a global platform to market an idea of French style.”

And perhaps the art form that created the most enduring images of the French of moody, romantic and sexually liberated was the cinema of the French New Wave. 

“I think the French New Wave cinema has a lot to answer for – fashion and style becomes embedded in the way that foreigners see French intellectual life – they see a way of being cultured in France that also involves style – smoking cigarettes wearing fashionable shoes and clothes etc.

“A lot of New Wave cinema is trying to bring a certain French philosophical topics into the conversation, but one that is heavily influenced by an American aesthetic. So actually what people think of as a very French style is heavily influenced by America.” 

The Americans

Speaking of Americans, it was in the US that the ‘romantic Frenchie’ stereotype first really took off in the period after World War II.  

The US remains a huge market for France, particularly in the realm of tourism. 

Emile said: “The British relationship with the French is of course much much older, but it’s a complicated relationship with a lot of history of conflict. Even in the period after World War II British politics tend to define itself in opposition to the French – we are not a land of revolution, of protest we are a land of consensus, parliamentary politics and this is important in terms of how the British see themselves as a global power. 

“The American view is more about individual exchanges and there were two groups who were really influential here.

“The first is the well-off white American women – WASPS – who came to France on holidays or cultural exchanges or to study – think Jackie Kennedy.

“They’re looking for something from France, they believe it to be the land of romance, the land of fashion, the land of style. For the most part these well-off, well-educated women returned to the US after their time in France and became housewives, so they tended to see their time in France as a ‘last fling’. Even if they didn’t actually have a romance there was still this sense of France as a place of freedom and glamour.

“And although these type of women were really tiny in number they went on to become extremely influential in setting a certain romantic image of the French.

“The second group were African-Americans who came to France, particularly in the period after World War II, in search of a society that was more open to them, and then reported back that France was a sort of paradise of freedom – I’m thinking people like Miles Davies touring in France and then saying “They respect me for who I am”. 

Tourism

The most obvious success of France’s marketing of itself is in tourism where France is consistently the most visited tourist destination in the world, and Paris was in 2022 named the world’s ‘most powerful tourist destination’

“People came and continue to come in their millions to experience ‘Frenchness’,” said Emile.

“The packaging of France to the outside world leans very heavily on Paris – in contrast to marketing within France which centres on going to the mountains, the coast, the countryside and discovering new parts of the country. Paris is marketed to tourists, especially tourists from South Asia, China and the Gulf, as the home of luxury, fashion and romance.”

And if you want proof, check out this promotional video made by Paris City Hall in 2016 with the intention of luring tourists back to the city when visitor numbers fell after the 2015 terror attacks. The film begins, of course, with two attractive people in bed – the tagline isn’t quite ‘come to Paris and get laid’ but it’s not far off.

The future?

The classic stereotype still stands, but there has been a sustained backlash a lot of which has emanated from the French themselves – especially Frenchwomen who resent the narrow, restrictive stereotypes of the ‘French woman’, which really only ever encompassed a small group of wealthy, white, Parisian women.

Emile said: “There have been a number of high profile scandals among the intellectual elite involving paedophilia and incest, feminist groups are questioning this image of the ‘French woman’ and the gender roles that implies and there is an increasing focus on Black beauty as the ‘beautiful French woman’ stereotypes especially are overwhelmingly white.

“There’s also an evolution of style so that it encompasses more groups – it used to be that the French were stylish and the British eccentric so that if you didn’t want to dress in the traditional way in France you would go to Britain where people would tolerate you wearing weird things and that was great.

“That has affected this ability to market ‘French style ‘as universal. France has a long and contested history of trying to find a place for Black people and the questions are now being asked about whether these traditional styles work with Black bodies or Black hair and I think those have challenged the hegemony of French style.” 

But the stereotype is powerful and even though it is being questioned in France, it might take a long time to change preconceptions outside the country. 

SHOW COMMENTS