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.

Howard says nothing about Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, which was taken by Prussia in 1871, returned to France in 1919, taken again by Germany in 1940, and returned to France in 1945. The city had huge symbolic importance for the French, and in 1944 De Gaulle insisted that it was a matter of national honour for the city to be liberated by Free French troops under General Leclerc. The US army had already done the hard work and there was little resistance, but Leclerc made all his troops swear a solemn oath to fight until ‘our flag flies over the Cathedral of Strasbourg,’ and when the city was retaken there was much national rejoicing. The sudden German advance in the Battle of the Bulge later the same year led Eisenhower to consider pulling his troops out of Alsace altogether in order to regroup. De Gaulle was afraid that Strasbourg would once more fall to the Germans and threatened to withdraw from the joint Allied command, and even to declare war on the Allies, if this happened. Churchill managed to talk Eisenhower out of withdrawal and the German advance was stopped forty kilometres short of Strasbourg.

Twenty years later De Gaulle was still angry about what had transpired and gave the threat to Strasbourg as his reason for France’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Imagine if the Russians broke through and threatened to take Strasbourg, he said: would an American commander use nuclear weapons to stop them if he knew he would lose Chicago in retaliation? No, De Gaulle thundered: no American leader would sacrifice Chicago for Strasbourg, so no French leader could trust the Allies. Only a nuclear-armed French leader could be relied on to save the city.

France after 1945 was determined to reassert control of the French Empire, and angrily resisted the slightest encroachment by the ‘Anglo-Saxons’. Unfortunately, nationalist and communist forces were vying to overthrow that empire, and France needed Anglo-Saxon help to hold them off. In Indochina, for instance, France appealed desperately for British and American help against the Vietminh, while bitterly resenting innocent intrusions such as the American decision to set up English-language classes in Saigon – a ‘grave insult’. There were many angry stand-offs with the Americans, though America was paying for half of the French war effort. By 1954 France had conceded. The newly independent North Vietnam refused all association with France, as did South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. When De Gaulle heard of the climactic French defeat at Dien Bien Phu he lamented: ‘Algeria is lost. Algeria will be independent.’

The loss of Indochina made France fight all the harder to keep Algeria. France was drawn into the Suez adventure because it wanted to damage Nasser’s Egypt, which was seen as the key backer of the Algerian FLN. Britain was horrified when it discovered that France was secretly breaking the Tripartite Declaration of 1950 – an embargo agreed by Britain, the US and France on selling arms to Israel and its neighbouring Arab states – especially as France was selling Israel Mystère IV jets that outclassed anything the RAF had in the region. But Paris was more concerned about keeping its plans secret from Washington. Some Americans, including Senator John F. Kennedy, already supported Algerian independence. Oil and gas had been found in Algeria, and French intelligence had discovered that American oil companies were in correspondence with an FLN leader, Ahmed Ben Bella, about possible oil leases. This was more than enough to set alarm bells ringing about US imperial intentions.

It is remarkable that Anthony Eden agreed to join in with the Suez operation, for it meant deliberately deceiving the US and undermining the Anglo-American alliance. The French warships that were secretly in Israeli ports had to be kept out of sight of the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, and after news of the operation broke it must have become apparent to Eisenhower that great care had been taken by the Anglo-French forces and intelligence services to prevent their American ally from knowing what they were up to. The abortion of the operation triggered a huge wave of anti-American feeling in France. In Britain the parliamentary opposition attacked Suez on anti-imperialist grounds, but its real significance lay in the fact that Britain had gone behind America’s back for the first time since before 1914, leaving Nato in tatters.

All these losses made France even keener on the idea of Françafrique, a sort of semi-independence for African colonies that stayed in the Franc zone, and where French troops continued to be stationed. In the 1960s and 1970s Françafrique was the preserve of Jacques Foccart, who arranged coups to order. France also kept its overseas departments and territories under its wing by offering them French levels of welfare, pensions and social security, which throttled any instinct for independence. It was fiercely protective of this domain, always ready to imagine that the Anglo-Saxons were trying to muscle their way in. (As a result, every effort was made to prevent American Peace Corps volunteers from entering Françafrique where, horror of horrors, they might have started giving classes in English.) Paris also believed that any country where French was spoken was ipso facto within the French sphere of influence. So when Belgium announced its intention to quit the Congo, the French quickly pointed out that according to the terms of the treaties of 1884 and 1908 France had a pre-emptive right to the Congo if the Belgian king surrendered his. The Congolese disagreed.

France backed Moïse Tshombe’s breakaway state of Katanga in the Congo against the UN, and it strongly supported Biafra in the hope of breaking up Nigeria, the dominant Anglophone state in West Africa. Sometimes this almost led to open clashes between the powers. In 1964 a coup against Leon M’ba in Gabon was blamed on the CIA; when French troops intervened to reinstate M’ba, American enterprises were boycotted and the US embassy bombed. In Nigeria British companies were attacked from the air with planes and France gave arms to Biafra. At times a complete rupture in diplomatic relations seemed possible. When Chad’s ruler, François Tombalbaye, allowed Continental Oil (a US company) access to Chad’s oil, Paris arranged for him to be overthrown. In Madagascar there was a pantomime of coups and counter-coups organised by the French and the CIA against one another.

Underlying France’s defensiveness was a feeling that historically it had lost out to perfidious Albion. When De Gaulle visited Quebec in 1967 and deliberately encouraged the Quebec nationalists who were attempting to break up Canada, Ottawa chucked him out. Later, he told Foccart that he had saved himself from having to drink a toast to the queen. When he heard there was unrest in Mauritius he said, again to Foccart: ‘We’re going to take back from the English all they stole from us: Quebec, which is at hand, then Mauritius and then the Anglo-Norman [Channel] Islands.’ Thirty years later, François Mitterrand supported the murderous Hutu regime in Rwanda partly because the Tutsi leader, Paul Kagame, was a protégé of Yoweri Museveni, the president of (English-speaking) Uganda; he feared that victory for Kagame would mean an expansion of Anglo-American influence throughout the Great Lakes region. Sure enough, when Kagame won he broke links with France, joined the Commonwealth and made English his country’s official language.

The feeling that Britain has profited illegitimately at France’s expense contradicts the apparent camaraderie created by a century of the Entente Cordiale and an alliance in two world wars. From the Anglo-Saxon viewpoint, this inconsistency makes France an unreliable ally. During the Falklands War Mitterrand pledged to support Thatcher and even sent a team to help explain to the RAF the workings of the Super Etendard fighter and the Exocet missile. But as Howard shows, France not only supported Argentinian claims to the Falklands, it also attempted to export more Exocets to Argentina secretly via third countries. Many in France were pleased when three British ships were sunk by Exocets because it meant fresh orders for the missile. Clearly there were forces with opposing views at work within the French state; even Mitterrand wavered at times. Luckily the war lasted just 74 days.

France’s warring instincts make it unpredictable. Who could have imagined that the young Chirac and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, both then ministers in Pompidou’s government, would think it amusingly anti-American to assist Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther leader, when he arrived in Paris in the early 1970s on the run from a charge of attempted murder, having already been turfed out of Cuba? Who could have predicted that a French socialist government would organise an operation to blow up the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior? I met the man who ordered this operation, the defence minister Charles Hernu, not long before it took place. I still have the autographed copy of his book that he gave me, Nous … les grands, which has a picture of a French nuclear submarine on the cover. He seemed to me a man of gravitas and good sense, but shortly after we met he sent secret agents into New Zealand, a friendly country, to blow up the ship, killing a man in the process.

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Just as psychiatrists can divine a great deal by looking at a person’s interactions with others, it is possible to learn a lot about a country from its interactions with other countries. This was the approach George Kennan took to Soviet foreign policy. Where others saw aggressive expansionism, Kennan saw a paranoid insecurity that had originated hundreds of years before, when a ‘peaceful agricultural people trying to live on a vast exposed plain’ found themselves threatened, first by fierce nomads, later by powerful neighbours such as Sweden, then by the West in general. The Soviet regime knew their system was archaic and uncompetitive, so they feared not just penetration by the West but any direct contact with it: they were worried Russians would learn the truth about the world outside and that foreigners would realise how weak Russia really was. For Kennan, Marxism was just a ‘fig-leaf’ and the age-old insecurity had been dressed up as ‘capitalist encirclement’. This insecurity, he argued, was what lay behind the Soviet desire to control the largest possible area of the ‘near abroad’, starting with Eastern Europe and the non-Russian nations within the USSR. Russia’s experiences had created such a powerful and persistent set of attitudes that there was little point in attempting to sit down with the regime and ‘reason it out’. If we accept that animosity towards the West is a key element in Russian nationalist identity, we can see the naivety of Obama’s thinking he could simply ‘reset’ relations with Russia, and of Trump’s notion that he can cope with Putin simply by ‘doing a deal’ with him.

Applying the same style of analysis to France one can discern a deep-seated national pride that comes from having been the world’s leading state and its first centralised monarchy – from the age of Charlemagne to Napoleon – and from its sense of itself as the originator of democracy. The problem is that Bonaparte left France a defeated and diminished power that was easily shunted aside, first by the Prussians, then by the British and Americans. As a result the country’s pride has been damaged, but it continually tries to reassert itself. Britain and America see themselves as rational actors by comparison, though they too seek to further their own interests and carry their own burdens of unreason.

There is a long chapter still to be written about how France has tried to seek power and importance by embracing Europe, which it envisaged, essentially, as a Franco-German condominium. Britain’s fatal mistake was to assume that De Gaulle’s furious refusal of European federalism ended that vision once and for all. In fact his refusal was a mere hiccup, after which those who wanted ‘ever closer union’ simply pressed on. At least while De Gaulle and Adenauer were there, the notion of an equal alliance with Germany seemed plausible. But Germany’s superior economic growth and reunification put paid to that, and France increasingly lives in its nightmare of the EU as a new German empire. Worse still, France can never escape from its low growth, high unemployment present while it is in the Eurozone. With each passing year the situation gets worse: German productivity always outpaces French, and France is unable to compensate, as it did in the past, by devaluation. The high level of unemployment affects young Muslim men in particular, one of the factors responsible for the steady stream of jihadists. Jews are leaving France in record numbers and the country now lives in an apparently permanent state of emergency. The only solution is for France to quit the Eurozone, but the French political elite remains in a state of denial about this, for to admit it would be to admit that all hope of parity with Germany is gone, and that France now belongs in a lower division of Latin Europe along with Italy and Greece; not only has it lost its grandeur but it has been relegated to join the failures at the bottom of the class. Such a huge public confession of defeat would be unbearably painful, but French denial has created a situation in which only the unacceptable Marine Le Pen is willing to argue for leaving the Euro – when nothing is more certain than that this will have to happen at some point.

Howard suggests that the diminution of French power and the country’s economic hard times have led to a more realistic attitude in Paris. This seems to be the case in Syria. Historically, France assumed that the Levant was its domain and reacted with extreme hostility towards any other power that trespassed there. When Eisenhower sent the marines into Lebanon in 1958 Paris threatened to leave Nato. Yet France has joined the Russians and Americans in their assault on Isis and has happily abandoned Assad to his fate – because, Howard suggests, it sees more advantage in cultivating its commercial relationships with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both sworn enemies of Assad.

It is difficult not to sympathise. Everywhere, French power, culture and language are in retreat, and despite the rise of China, the expansion of Anglo-Saxon language, culture and soft power goes on. Currently, that means the triumph of Farage and Trump, of Sky TV, Fox News and the Daily Mail website. Many Anglo-Saxons are not happy about that.