Perhaps you’ve heard the expression “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” used to describe America’s disdain for the French. Ken Keeler, a writer for The Simpsons, gets credit for coining the phrase, but it entered our cultural lexicon via that irascible Scot, Groundskeeper Willie. Since its debut in 1995, the term has achieved an odd ubiquity, appearing in two Oxford quotation dictionaries. Jonah Goldberg wheels it out every time he needs to pen another “Top 10 Reasons to Hate the French” column.
Of course, Americans love to give France grief over our perceptions of their cultural cowardice. We lampoon Frenchmen as priggish, effete waiters or, better yet, anthropomorphized skunks known for their malodor and inability to take “no” for an answer. In contrast to American machismo, we presume they have little interest in fighting and wouldn’t know how to win if they did.
Recall that in 2003—at the Freedom-fried height of anti-Gallic sentiment—the New York Post suggested France helmed an “axis of weasels” for their refusal to support an American invasion of Iraq. That same day, the Post’s front page ran a photograph of American graves at Normandy with the headline “They died for France but France has forgotten.” A political cartoon labeled an ostrich with its head in the sand “The national bird of France.”
Is there a country in Europe that’s been more thoroughly caricatured?
And after what we’ve witnessed this past week, is there a sillier stereotype?
I’ll echo the words of President Francois Hollande: “France faced up to all of this.” Their police acted bravely, dispatched bad actors effectively, and, above all, maintained social order.
Perhaps most impressively, they accomplished an effective manhunt without compelling Parisians to shelter-in-place. While concerns about additional terror cells prompted the mayor’s office to order shops closed in the bustling Jewish district of Le Marais, Parisians were largely undeterred. The night before, with gunmen still at large, they’d flooded the streets in solidarity with the victims of these horrific killings.
As French authorities pursued two radicalized brothers alleged to have committed an appalling act of terror, it was difficult to ignore contrasts to our own experience. It wasn’t long ago that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev shut down Boston with a couple pressure cookers, BBs, nails, and parts of a remote control car. In an interview with USA Today, Representative William Keating (D-Mass.) remarked, “I’m watching what’s happening in Paris and I’m thinking of Watertown.” I think we all were.
Still, with all due respect and condolences to the victims of the Boston bombings, the sudden and complete imposition of martial law—with tanks in the streets and snipers on roofs—was nearly as disturbing as the explosions themselves. The MBTA public transit system was partially shut down to restrict movement. Businesses and schools were ordered closed. A curfew was established, as SWAT teams went door-to-door. Of course, it was only after these restrictions were lifted that a Watertown man stepped outside for a smoke and found Dzhokhar hiding in the bottom of his boat.
Writing in the Guardian, Michael Cohen recalled that his readers “might be forgiven for thinking that America over-reacted just a tad to the goings-on in Boston. They’re right and then some. What we saw was a collective freak-out like few we’ve seen previously in the United States. It was yet another depressing reminder that more than 11 years after 9/11 Americans still allow themselves to be easily and willingly cowed to the ‘threat’ terror.” That’s another way of saying we’re too willing to frighten ourselves.
In fairness, and by contrast, the French proved irrepressible and their government inclined to liberté. Amid so much awful, it is the French (of all people) who should remind us Americans how to respond bravely to tragedy.
As an American, I watched enviously as an astonishing chain of 1.5 million people marched along the Boulevard Voltaire in a demonstration of unity, tolerance, and co-existence. To put that in perspective, that’s more than celebrated the Liberation of Paris in 1944.
Publicly and demonstrably, the French rejected the sort of Manichean “clash of civilizations” plot line that often defines American political discourse. If there were calls for police to over-militarize or formalize ethnic profiling they were drowned out by millions of other voices in the streets of Paris, Nice, and Rennes. While French troops have deployed to protect “sensitive sites,” such as synagogues and mosques, no plans have been drafted for bombing runs abroad.
The threat of terror carries an unhappy inevitability. Doubtless, this won’t be the last attack. However, by refusing to surrender to fear, the French robbed the terrorists of their most powerful weapon and shattered our stereotypes in the process.