The problem with the almost entirely irrational debate over France these last few years, as even a proud Francophobe such as myself has been forced to admit, is that no single country could ever be as wonderful or as terrible as France's boosters/detractors enjoy making her out to be.
Liberals act as if France is the new cradle of civilization, a resplendent land of milk and honey on par with Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 portrayal of pre-war Iraq, in which no wrong can ever be done. Meanwhile, conservative authors have been furiously writing books with titles such as Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France and The French Betrayal of America (Tagline: "It's worse than you think.") that read like nominating papers drawn up to keep the Axis of Evil from being downgraded to the Duo of Evil. And we know France has weapons of mass destruction.
Into this milieu now wades Denis Boyles, author of National Review Online's regular "Euro-Press Review" column and longtime observer of French affairs from the inside, with a not-altogether-fair but nonetheless witty and well-written tome, Vile France. Boyles presents a simple thesis: "France is like the ex-wife from hell," he writes. "Yes, we enjoyed each other's company once for a couple months several hundred years ago, but it's over, way over, over and dead, over and over again."
To his credit, Boyles acknowledges the political reality that, "the attitude you have towards France is probably determined by your political inclinations more than any piece of specific information." This means "If you're a political conservative, France is anathema because of its duplicity and instinct for betrayal and its rejection of American claims of leadership." And "If you're a political liberal, chances are you think France is a little cranky, but charming, and besides you like the whole communitarian, anti-capitalist gestalt of the place, with its wine and cheese ambiance. It's like Wisconsin without those violent Packers."
Boyles explains France to his readers by noting that "Ever since the French Revolution, the principal intellectual preoccupation of France's ruling class has been to precisely define France in apophatic termsas what it is not…. And these days what France is not, as every Frenchman agrees, is America."
Such is the price of being the world's sole superpower. The world may demand America's hand in every conflict and economic crisis across the globe, but they're also going to blame the boss for anything and everything that goes wrong, principally because they are sure if they were running the show, things would be better.
Still, Boyles remains skeptical of France's claim to the throne: "After more than a dozen substantial constitutional transformations, three monarchies, two empires, various experiments in terror and anarchy, five republics and a fascist puppet government, France now prides itself on its rational approach to government by decree and its economic model of national socialism," he writes. "The evolutionary process of French civic development has left blood on the streets every time a new political creature has emerged from the slime of French history. Yet France presumes to offer the world a more civilized alternative to American leadership."
The book's opening chapter on the history of the rocky relationship between France and America, fueled by a government-subsidized press that sustains the idea of French exceptionalism with a straight face, is alone worth the price of the book. A subsequent exploration of France's role in the Rwandan genocide and Ivory Coast unrest, as well as other misdeeds throughout the Third World is also fascinating.
But when the book turns to debasing France as a "rogue nation in the heart of Europe…even more dangerous to the world than North Korea," it can leave readers a bit queasyespecially those of us who have read North Korean concentration camp memoirs such as Kang Chol-Hwan's heartrending The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in a North Korean Gulag. This sort of rhetoric, is frankly little better than French caricatures of America as a sister state to the Third Reich.
And speaking of the Third Reich, the criticism of the ungrateful Charles De Gaulle during and after World War II is spot on, but Boyles' claim that the collaborationist Vichy government "was embraced as an enlightened regime" and "seen by most French citizens as morally and practically superior to regimes less cooperative with the Germans," is suspect at best.
Even if we discount the surviving video and pictures of French men and women crying as the Germans marched into Paris or their joy as the Allies drove them out, there still is that pesky issue of the 92,000 French military personnel who died defending France during a few short weeks in 1940. Did they just not get the welcoming committee's press release about how excited the French people actually were about having their sovereignty thrown to the side, their legitimate government toppled, and a puppet government put in its place? Did they just not understand how much they would enjoy living under the Nazis' thumb? For perspective, American forces lost around 58,000 lives in 10 years of fighting in Vietnam before abandoning the country to Communist forces.
As far as the French inability to "win a convincing victory until the Americans" showed up in World War I, the simple fact is that the German army in the 20th century was nothing to trifle with. They fought two two-front wars within decades and still gave the rest of the world a run for its money, including the United States. During World War I, French losses approached 1.4 million with another three and a half million wounded, so it's not like they didn't put up a fight.
No, Vile France is at its best when Boyles is in deconstruction rather than attack mode. Boyles, for example, dismisses French "populist hero" Jose Bove, the sheep herder who cannot seem to resist attacking a McDonald's with a chainsaw or destroying genetically modified crops that might feed thousands, as the "David Hasselhoff of modern French anti-capitalism" and "a shepherd in the same way Al Sharpton is a clergyman."
Some of Boyles's other descriptions are spot-on. The Green Party is "the organized political gesture of all those who are oppressed by Nike and McDonald's and who yearn for a cleaner planet free of global capitalism, but with cheaper laptops." The French work ethic is "a more or less permanent state if indolence punctuated by unseemly periods of so-called work, which for many French means going to a government office and saying 'non!' all day long." Priceless!
Most importantly, Boyles recognizes that, while the French have given us plenty of trouble these last few years, it is nothing compared to the hell they've given themselves through shortsighted policies, writing that the "fastest growth sectors" in France are "ghetto despair, demographic disaster and blind hatredhard stuff to use to cushion a veiled attack on American values."
Perhaps we really cannot expect much else aside from lashing out from a country in both economic and demographic decline. Only half jokingly, Boyles anticipates a moment in the not-too-distant French future wherein the annual Bastille Day address is given by a Islamic Grand Mufti "under the star and croissant" who will tell the discontented hordes to "move to Algeria if they don't like living in France."
It's an amusing picture, but, as with other conservatives, Boyles seems to miss a bit of the irony: vile as France may be today, there are worse alternatives.