Monday, August 11, 2008

Good Old Competition

Tonight, I experienced my first ear-to-ear grin while watching the Olympics. The smile was put on my face by the men's 400 meter freestyle relay team as they "smashed" the world record and, in the process, the French team. I was watching NBC after the U.S. beat France by .008 of a second, when a commentator mentioned that just before the race the American boys overheard the "Frenchies," as they called them, trash talking the U.S. team. (How do you like them now?) I can't be sure, but I bet that fueled their fire to kick Frenchie swimming butt and inspired their infectious jubilation upon winning. The last 50 meters of the race were incredible. Kudos to Jason Lezak for pulling the team through as anchor and helping Phelps keep his bid alive for 8 gold in '08.

I have never been to France, although I hear it is a lovely place and that the people can be quite nice as well. I hope to visit someday. However, I have discovered that Americans, at times, have a special disdain for the French. I can't honestly say that I know its origins, but I find it entertaining. I only ask that the Francophiles out there indulge me for a minute, because I just loved watching our boys win.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is good for the soul to beat the French at something, which carries the additional virtue of being easy to come by.

America owes a great deal to the noble side of France, to the society that produced Rochambeau and the Marquis de Lafayette, who helped us win the Revolution. They gave us the Statue of Liberty, too. And the world owes a great deal to French culture, and the geniuses that that culture produced.

The good sport of mocking the French seems to date from WW1, when the French army, en mass, refused to fight for France's territorial integrity even as other nations continued to do. However sensible the French refusal to fight given the horror of trench warfare, it was an inglorious act (John Keegan in his book The First World War, writes, "The general mood [of the French] was one of reluctance, if not refusal, to take part in fresh attacks but also of patriotic willingness to hold the line against attacks by the enemy.").
Robert Graves, in his classic memoir of the Great War, Good-bye To All That, wrote of his and his fellow British soldiers' contempt for the French soldier and their professional admiration of the Germans.

Fast forward to WWII. Here France surrendered early, and then the Vichy government embarrassed the Nazis by the enthusiasm with which they rounded up Jews for their new masters.

This history (and much of it is capable of justification: Britain, though she held out, did not face the Wehrmacht in Blitzkreig or any other mode on English soil; and the Vichy government, though of France, was not France) is perhaps enough to explain the cottage industry of French teasing (e.g. Why do French tanks have rear-view mirrors? So their crews can see the battle), but there is more.

For to this apparent martial inconstancy and moral flexibility the French add a demonstrated and humorously out of place bellicosity at the negotiating table. Their fingerprints were on the Treaty of Versaille, which stoked German grievances; and the heroic (seriously, he was) De Galle was shameless in getting France a permanent seat on the nascent UN Security Counsel (those seats went to the victors of WWII). A quick story about De Galle that is relevant here; it is most likely apocryphal because too perfect: a U.S. military attache, upon hearing De Galle rant that he wanted all American soldiers off French soil (this was after the war) inquired of him, "Even the dead ones, sir?").

It is, I think, this 20th century reputation (leave aside the Iraq issue of the 21st century) for blanching on the battlefield and then banging her spoon on her diplomatic highchair from behind the Brits and the Americans that explains France's whipping boy role in American humor. One more: What do Germans call French diplomats? Butlers in waiting. He He He.