Defending Paris: bad jokes and history myths

MyFrenchLife™ - defending paris - troops - MyFrenchLife.orgIt 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…” 

MyFrenchLife™ - defending paris - liberation -

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.

MyFrenchLife™ - defending paris - Obama and Sarkozy -

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?”

Probably not.

Would you?

What are your opinions on the defending Paris myth? Join the conversation below in the comments with Ray or on twitter @MaVieFrancaise

Image credits:
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

About the Contributor

Ray Johnstone

Ray is an artist & writer. His favourite subjects are nudes and portraits. Art holidays for groups & families are catered for in their 800-year-old house La Petite Galerie in Gascony. They also take up to 6 walkers on the 'best bits' of the Pilgrims Route to Compostela. Check out Ray's 100+ articles - he has his own column called 'Perspectives'

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  1. Michael Dorman Jul 28, 2016 at 11:58 AM - Reply

    When Marshal Petain took over the French government a couple of weeks before the armistice, it was he and his government that decided to call for a ceasefire. The French soldiers, sailors and airmen fought fiercely and bravely despite the high command being inept and using WW I tactics. It was the First French Army at Dunkirk that saved the British army. Though outnumbered 10 to one, the French held the perimeter and inflicted huge casualties on the Germans, their armour and the Luftwaffe. It was this army that made it possible for the fleet of boats to actually have any soldiers to pick up to bring the England for safety. Church said the valour of the French army made it possible for the British army to be saved to fight another day. The French soldiers who were rescued were back on ships within 3 hours sailing back to France to re-engage with their military in the battle against the Germans. So much for being cowards. Read about the other engagements in the Battle of France where the French fought to the last bullet and were compared to the valiant 300 in ancient Greece. The French freed much of Tunisia and invaded and liberated Corsica, making it a giant aircraft carrier so American and Free French air forces could attack the Germans in northern Italy and southern France. The battle of Bir-Hakeim in Libia was another occasion where outnumbered again about 10 to one, Free French Forces held back a German Italian army under Rommel for nearly two weeks, allowing Montgomery’s troops to escape into Egypt to reform and defeat the Germans at El Almein. Montgomery praised the French and said it was they who gave the British time to regroup and win. Again in the Italian campaign, there were more French than British divisions and it was the French who punched through the German lines, opening up the road to Rome and it was a French and American general who rode the jeep together in the victory parade in Rome. This is not to disparage the British in Italy but only to show that ignorant people who know nothing about the details of WW II simply parrot the nasty antics of politicians who don’t care about the truth if it serves there purposes such as the G. W. Bush administration did during the Iraq war. I would check out the battle of Stonne and the cadets of Saumur to see French bravery. Some of the soldiers at Dunkirk made suicide bayonet attacks against the Germans when their ammo ran out. I have been studying the history of France of WW II for 50 years and there are now more and more books being published about this. The Germans themselves said next to us (the Germans) the French make the best soldiers in Europe and Hitler himself said that when the Free French landed in southern France that it was his darkest day because again, next to us, the French are the best soldiers in Europe. The French Alpine Troops basically stopped the Italian invasion in the south east as Germany was attacking in the north. You can’t take one or two incidents of individual cowardice or failings and extrapolate it onto tens of thousands of other soldiers. There is so much more to put down those uninformed anti-French attitudes. My research has found quite the opposite. I have a lot of examples of British failures that could be used against them but this would be equally unfair. It’s sort of like the example of one black person robbing a bank so therefore all black people are bank robbers and so forth.

    • Ray Johnstone Jul 29, 2016 at 4:18 AM - Reply

      Bonjour Michael,
      Thank you very much for reading my article and for taking the trouble to comment in such detail.
      It seems we agree who the real cowards are.
      Perhaps you could have a look at my other article.
      Merci encore.

  2. meeee Dec 21, 2023 at 5:14 AM - Reply

    what i understand from this article is that Frenchmen don’t like jokes 😛

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