Danger: English Lessons

R.W. Johnson

  • Power and Glory: France’s Secret Wars with Britain and America, 1945-2016 by R.T. Howard
    Biteback, 344 pp, £20.00, October 2016, ISBN 978 1 78590 116 4

In his monumental biography of De Gaulle, Jean Lacouture describes a meeting of the Free French in London in 1941 at which several of the younger members expressed their admiration for Churchill. In response De Gaulle warned them ‘never to forget that within him breathes the soul of Pitt’. What he meant was that every true Englishman is, at least potentially, an opponent of France. In De Gaulle’s view of history – a European history – England and France had struggled for supremacy for the best part of a thousand years. For most of that time France had been the dominant power, but now its great empire wasn’t just overshadowed but outmatched by the even greater British Empire. For De Gaulle France was not itself if it was not the leading power in Europe. By 1941, however, the opponent was no longer Britain: it was ‘les Anglo-Saxons’. Asked what was the most important international development of recent times, De Gaulle replied: ‘The fact that the Americans speak English.’

In Power and Glory R.T. Howard argues that for the French national power and influence are intimately bound up not just with ‘soft power’ but with the influence of one’s culture and language specifically. This was a cause for concern when Britain was applying to join the EU. French and German were both spoken in the EU’s institutions, but the French worried that if Britain joined English would predominate. When Britain voted to leave the EU the French were confident that the influence of English would diminish. Within weeks Paris had worked out that a number of Anglophone countries – Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada – that had used Britain as a door into the EU would need another way in. New French courses for businessmen were suddenly on offer in all those countries. Similarly, as Howard points out, there have been many occasions when the decision by the Americans to offer English lessons in previously Francophone countries – Vietnam, for example – was bitterly resented as a harbinger of American imperialism. Howard quotes Gérard Prunier, an adviser to the French government, who claimed that ‘the Anglo-Saxons want our death – that is, our cultural death. They threaten our language and our way of life, and they plan our ultimate Anglo-Saxonisation.’

Underlying this fear is, on the one hand, De Gaulle’s notion that ‘France is not really itself except when it is in the front rank,’ and on the other the damage done to France’s national pride by Trafalgar, Quebec, Fashoda, Mers-el-Kébir and the defeat of 1940. The rest of the world hasn’t forgotten these events either and is liable to jeer when the occasion arises. When De Gaulle ordered US bases out of France, Lyndon Johnson angrily demanded to know if that meant digging up the graves of American soldiers who had died in the liberation. Jacques Chirac’s refusal to support George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq caused fury in Middle America, in part because it was felt that France had repeatedly been rescued by American soldiers and therefore had no right to let America down. Hence the renaming of ‘French fries’ and the talk of ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’.

As Howard shows, French diplomacy has been involved in a continuous war of manoeuvre against the Anglo-Saxons. Its existence has rarely been acknowledged, so Howard’s study is especially valuable; though there are some lacunae and a few mistakes it also contains a great deal of useful material. He starts with the confrontation between the French and the British in the Levant in 1945, when France at first appeared to accept the independence of Syria and Lebanon but then sent in troops, aiming to re-establish French suzerainty. There were serious clashes, until the British, under General Sir Bernard Paget, imposed martial law, confined French troops to their barracks and had the French general Oliva-Roget relieved of his command. In Lebanon, similarly, when the French tried to stand in the way of independence by arresting the Lebanese cabinet, suspending the parliament and constitution and imposing their own candidate as head of state, the British, under General Edward Spears, forced a complete reversal. In both cases Paris suspected Britain of trying to ensure that the Union Jack would fly over the entire Levant. De Gaulle raged at the British ambassador, threatened to declare war and accused Britain of unforgivable crimes against France. Howard shows that France was suspicious of British and American designs on French North Africa and Madagascar too. France faced nationalist resistance in all these places, but consistently imagined that the resistance was being fomented by London and Washington.

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