French-bashing flies in face of rationality -- and history

April 16, 2003|By Gregory Kane

JEAN-DAVID Levitte, a rakishly handsome guy in an impeccable, conservative gray suit, strode to the podium at the Johns Hopkins University's Glass Pavilion to give France's side on this Iraq business.

"I read a lot of France-bashing in the American press," the French ambassador to the United States said April 9.

Talk about understatement. We've all heard the anti-French jokes running rampant since the buildup for the war against the Saddam Hussein Gang started. France and Germany were the two leading European countries against the war. Somehow, the French are the targets of American vitriol.

The worst of the jokes goes like this: "How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris?"

The answer: "It's not known. It's never been tried."

Well, yuk, yuk. Quite the knee-slapper. Let's try this Q and A, one that's not a joke, just the plain truth.

What country might not exist if it weren't for France?

Answer: the United States of America.

Remember that little thing called the Revolutionary War? Remember how 13 small colonies fought valiantly against harrowing odds to throw off the British yoke? Remember which country helped us? Levitte does.

"French soldiers and officers fought with Americans before there was a United States," the ambassador said, "in your war for independence."

Let's have a bit of true confession here. I might be a little biased about this matter. Not only would the United States not exist without France, neither would Gregory Kane. If a French indentured servant named Marie Contee hadn't married a free Maryland black man named Owen Smith in 1852, you wouldn't be reading this. (Yeah, the black guy was free, and the white woman was the servant. Go figure.)

Levitte also realizes that such help and gratitude went the other way.

"The United States saved France twice in the last century," Levitte told the audience, "and we will never forget that."

He was referring, of course, to the two world wars. America entered World War I in 1917. Our troops helped turn the tide of battle in favor of France and Great Britain. We entered World War II in 1941. American forces landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944, and the Allies liberated Paris months later.

Those Americans with poor memories and a lousy sense of history have gleaned from this knowledge some fantasy about French cowardice and ingratitude. Nazi Germany overran and occupied France in 1940. Some French known as the Vichy collaborated with the Nazis. Others, the Free French, formed a resistance movement that was no doubt crucial to the Allied war effort.

There is a downside to America's going to war with Hussein's regime. Reason, it seems, has been booted into the stratosphere. How else can you explain some supporters of the war suggesting that all French people collaborated with the Nazis and that the Free French and the resistance fighters were cowards?

That's a calumny that should not go unanswered and should never be repeated. What does need repeating is this: France is our old ally and friend. Are we going to let a cutthroat like Hussein wreck that friendship? Is he worth it?

"As good old friends," Levitte said, "it seems to us a legitimate concern to express our views."

He was talking about the French position on the war. Levitte's country, along with Germany and other countries, opposed armed conflict with Iraq because they believed Hussein was responding to the threat of force by cooperating more and more with United Nations weapons inspectors.

The United States, Great Britain, Spain and other countries in the coalition thought otherwise. That doesn't make one side cowardly or the other bellicose. The mark of rational people is that they can agree to disagree.

Some Americans seem to be failing that test. The anti-French invective is at a fever pitch. The mania might be at least partly understandable if all countries that opposed the war were subject to the same nastiness, but Germany, our foe in two previous wars, gets a free pass. (Shouldn't the knowledge that the Germans, of all people, didn't want to go to war at least have given us pause?)

Those of us who support the war in Iraq but despise the shameful treatment of a friend and ally need to speak out. Worse things have been uttered in this country about French leaders than about Hussein, who's the guy we're supposed to be fighting.

I can only imagine what my great-great-great-grandma Marie Contee must be thinking. But she should know her great-great-great-grandson has her back.

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