Defending Paris: bad jokes and history myths
It was a hot night in 2003. As the world sat mesmerised in front of their TVs watching the horrifying pictures of the Allies attacking Bagdad, I was at dinner with a group of Anglo Saxons in la France profonde.
A lively debate ensued. One of the guests I hardly knew leaned towards me and asked smugly, “But it’s about time we taught these bastards a lesson, don’t you think?”
I managed to duck the question. The Middle East was forgotten for a while and we went on with the meal: entree of duck rillettes, followed by duck confit and then croustade – a dessert made with a duck fat-based pastry. No prizes for guessing that I live in Gascony.
But later that evening, my fellow guest picked up his theme again. He sniggered as he told a joke – if you can call it that. He said it was circulating in Western capitals. Question: “How many French soldiers does it take to defend Paris?” Answer: “No one knows because it’s never been done before.”
The jibe refers to the painful fact that the French army failed at defending Paris: they were routed in 1940 and Paris gave up without a fight.
Defending Paris: a myth is born
When the capital was eventually liberated in 1944, de Gaulle was determined to present his revised version of these embarrassing events. In front of a large crowd he stated, “Paris ! … libéré par lui-même, libéré par son peuple avec le concours des armées de la France…”
The myth was born. The General made no mention of the Allies in the invasion of Europe. He ignored the many foreign, anti-fascist maquisards who were the backbone of the Resistance. And no mention was made of the role women played – they were not given much credit until many years after the Liberation.
Franco–US relations: the myth revisited
Then, almost 60 years later, when the Allies were intent on invading Iraq, the French’s failed attempt at defending Paris was resuscitated in America as a propaganda weapon. It was given currency by those who wanted to disparage the French who were refusing to join the Allied invasion. The objective was to brand them cowards, and to illustrate that Chirac was not worth waiting for. United States–French relations crashed to an all time low.
But France and the US go back a long way – remember Lafayette helping the rebels against the Crown? And the Statue of Liberty? And the long list of famous Americans who have fallen in love with France. Even Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson spent time in Paris. As did a host of writers and artists: Mark Twain, Josephine Baker, Edward Hoper, Mary Cassatt, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, to name just a few.
So, once the Neo-cons were gone, Obama and Sarkozy kissed and made up. Sarko was quoted as saying “Obama? C’est mon copain.” and normal relations were restored.
I never did see the dinner guest from across the table again. But if I did, having since seen countless images of the hundreds who were incinerated that night – and the thousands who died in the mayhem that followed – I’ve often wondered if I’d have the courage to ask: “Well, do you think it was worth it, now that we’ve given the bastards a lesson?”
What are your opinions on the defending Paris myth? Join the conversation below in the comments with Ray or on twitter @MaVieFrancaise
1. Paris World War II, via wikipedia
2. Liberation of Paris, via wikipedia
3. Obama and Sarkozy, via wikimedia commons Source: Robert Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows, Faber & Faber, 2015
Note: This popular article was refreshed and republished in 2020