Cheese-eating surrender monkeys? That’s bananas

Its assault on Libya confirms that France is a belligerent nation that loves meddling in other states’ affairs.

Dominic Lintner

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The French may be cheese-eating, but they are not the surrender monkeys that Brits and Americans like to imagine.

Along with ‘Axis of Evil’, the historically obtuse use of the word ‘patriot’, and the irritating smugness of the phrase ‘so-called friendly fire’, one of the more memorable developments in the English language from the War on Terror was the description of the French as ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’. It might have been a throwaway remark from a minor character in The Simpsons back in 1995 but, in the context of the War on Terror, it soon became a popular term of abuse.

For a society in which the fromage market is so moribund that the lead product, American cheese, has to sell itself on its nationalist credentials, it was an epithet that was both effective in disparaging France’s objections to regime change in Iraq, and revealing in what it told us about the American conservative view of the world. It spoke to a vision of France as a sissified, bourgeois bohemia, where soldiers would rather smoke Gauloises on a nudist beach and tenderly kiss each other hello than pick up an M-16 to kill the terrorist enemy. A number of British and Australian conservatives also joined in the sport, indicating that this view of France was a phenomenon familiar to what the French tend to call the Anglo-Saxon world.

Even to Francophiles, there is something deeply satisfying about thinking of the French in these terms. In the English-speaking world, France is often used as shorthand for a particularly louche moral depravity: French knickers, French kissing, ménage-à-trois, ‘pardon my French’; in the past, a ‘French letter’ was even slang for a condom. There are solid historical reasons for this attitude, of course. While France and Britain have not been at war since Waterloo, and fought alongside each other in two world wars, it is a commonplace observation that the alliance has been awkward and strained, like the fumbling romances which tend to emerge between pupils on school exchange trips to La Rochelle.

If we like to think of the French as too morally and sexually compromised to wage war on developing countries – Rafale fighter-bombers rusting on the runway as their pilots roll over in their hammocks, too weak from nursing syphilis to fly another sortie – this view is misguided.

The French may indeed love their cheese, and Pétain did indeed negotiate a surrender following an ill-conceived military strategy in 1940, but English-speaking countries are generally unaware of France’s true attitude to armed conflict. The First Indochina War and the subsequent Algerian War saw France fight with stubbornness and cruelty against its colonial subjects, employing torture and collective responsibility and forcibly relocating millions in Algeria from mountain villages to camps in the plains. Since the Second World War, and even after decolonisation, France has maintained an independent nuclear arsenal and high levels of military spending compared with other European countries. France sent thousands of troops to participate in the first Gulf War in 1991, is part of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, and in 2004 bombed the small air force of the Côte d’Ivoire on its runway in response to rebel attacks on French peacekeepers.

Even Jean-Paul Sartre – a pacifist before the Second World War whom we like to think of as shacked up in a garret with Simone, staring into the existential abyss between bouts of disconsolate love-making – served in the French army; his novel La Mort Dans L’Âme famously ends with the decision by his protagonist Mathieu to fight and die against the German invaders in an act of good faith.

If further proof were needed of the chasm between the right-wing view of the French as cheese-eating surrender monkeys and the reality of France as an often belligerent ex-colonial power with a penchant for military intervention, the current air campaign against Colonel Gaddafi, spearheaded by the French airforce, should prove sufficient. Indeed, French president Nicolas Sarkozy was so eager for the French to make the first strike that he ordered French war planes to attack on 19 March before the decisive meeting between coalition partners in Paris had even concluded.

Bellicose right-wingers in the United States and elsewhere might puzzle over France’s warlike posture, or else favourably compare the hawkish Sarkozy to the more circumspect response of President Obama in order to portray their supposedly liberal commander-in-chief as a peacenik Kenyan. But the French action should be unsurprising to those who are aware of France’s recent military history. The French may love their cheese, and we may even think of them in that prudish Protestant way as monkeys of the sexually suspect variety, but the charge of pacifist tendencies misses the mark by a wide margin, and plays on old tropes which were never accurate to begin with.

Dominic Lintner is a postgraduate student at Magdalen College, Oxford.

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