Friday, March 13, 2009

The Morals of the French

Justin Godart (1871-1956)

I have long thought of France and the French as morally hollow. They seemed empty shirts full of couture and history, eating the best food, wearing the best clothes, creating the best art, living in the most beautiful cities. But I have thought that if you scratched them hard enough one would find the Vichy-ite antisemitic pig underneath.

I must always have known that characterizing a whole nation in such a one-dimensional way was un-historical and wrong. But the super-imposition of two things kept bringing me back to it.

One is the plaque on the front of every elementary school in Paris. It commemorates that the Jewish children of that school were handed over to the Nazis for deportation to the death camps by the French state. It very specifically mentions the French state to force the reader to accept French complicity in the murders. These plaques are dated 2003 or 2004. What is distinctive about those dates is that they are sixty years after the fact. Which is just about the minimum amount of time necessary to ensure that no one at all could be held responsible. Instead of accountability one has plaques.

At the same time there has been the implacable anti-Israel posture of a generation of French governments. Whenever Arafat came here he was welcomed as a hero. The President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, literally kissed him whenever he came to France. France consistently voted with the Arabs in the UN. De Gaulle made public anti-semitic remarks.

But history is long. During the Fourth Republic France was Israel's strongest ally. In 1967 Israel won the Six Day War not with American planes but with French Mirage fighters.

There was a level of cooperation that was almost comic at times. There was an episode when Israel had commissioned the construction of two frigates by a French government shipyard. Under Arab pressure, even though Israel had already paid for the ships, the French government refused to release them when they were completed. The Israeli government simply took the two ships from the shipyard and sailed them to Israel. In fact the public story of Israeli chutzpah was a fabrication. Had the French navy been ordered to stop the two frigates they could easily have done so. The affair was a ruse to mollify the Arabs.

All of which is by way of preamble. Let it never be said that Jack L. Kessler did not put the 'amble' in preamble.

The rest is that the French have been on every side of every issue that has ever been except for a few, like baguettes, cheese, wine, and ooh-la-la.

These have not been empty gestures covering a secret Vichy heart. My characterizing all of France and French history through the lenses of Vichy, Chirac, and DeGaulle is as one-dimensional and false as Europeans seeing the United States only through the lenses of slavery and our destruction of the Indians.

We have those things in our history. They really happened. We really did them. But more men gave their lives to end slavery than to defend it.

Even during Vichy and the occupation there were those who resisted. On many buildings along the Seine are plaques commemorating where resistance fighters died fighting the Germans during the unsuccessful uprising of 19 and 20 August 1944.

A whole section of the right bank of the Seine near the Pont des Arts is the Place Justin Godart, "Maire de Lyon, resistant, juste parmi les pays". 'Juste parmi les pays' translates to 'righteous among the nations'. Being mayor of a major city was a sure ticket to being safe and prosperous together with one's family during the war. And meant that one was particularly visible to the Nazis. So this was a man with both conscience and courage.

I have already noted the courage and principle of Emile Zola and Georges Clemenceau in defending Alfred Dreyfus. They were only two among many.

France and the French are for real. So I take it all back. Or most of it anyway. The plaques commemorating the resistance fighters did not take 60 years to put up.


  1. Anonymous6:13 PM

    Any country that produced Debussy and Ravel can't be all bad.

  2. But they think Jerry Lewis is funny... Laaaaddyyyy!!!