It is odd that so many Americans love to hate on the French, almost as if it were a patriotic rite of passage. Setting aside the fact that the sentiment is largely one sided—a 2014 Pew poll found most French had a positive view of Americans—the two peoples could not be more natural allies. And I swear, it’s not just my Francophilia talking.
In fact, France is the only major European country we have never had a real war or rivalry with—though that is far from the only metric.
We love to talk up our love of liberty and opposition to tyranny and government. Yet the French walk the walk almost every day, with an average of ten political demonstrations daily. They engage in the sort of free speech, popular assembly, and political vigilance we hold dear—often to significant results. Popular demonstrations have brought down half a dozen governments, including an entrenched 1,000-year-old monarchy, its successor, and two republics.
Hell, the French were so adept at taking control of Paris that the city’s iconic boulevards and public spaces were actually designed, in part, to keep citizens from barricading the city’s once narrower streets and plazas (hence it was Napoleon III who led the reconstruction, though it didn’t stop him from getting chased out by the people).
We gloat about saving the French in the Second World War—which, by the way, they do actually commemorate and appreciate, as I saw firsthand when I visited Normandy—but we owe our very independence to their support. It was the only country that could take on the British, and its recognition of the American republic added legitimacy to our cause. The French sent money, supplies, troops, and experienced military leaders; 90 percent of our gunpowder and pretty much our entire naval force was French. The decisive Siege of Yorktown, which helped end the war, involved as many French troops as American ones. This is a big reason why so many quintessential American heroes, such as Jefferson and Franklin, were proud and open Francophiles.
Not long after the U.S. became the world’s first modern republic, France followed suit, with a revolution that was arguably bigger and bolder (as American leaders themselves conceded, albeit not always in a complimentary way). France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, drafted during its revolution, is roughly analogous to the U.S. Bill of Rights, establishing rights of liberty, property, safety, freedom of thought, and resistance against oppression.
Unlike the Thirteen Colonies, which had only been around for a couple centuries—and which had inherited the weaker monarchism of Britain—the French had to face a millennium-long tradition of paternalistic absolute monarchy. It also had an entire continent of monarchies to fight off, give the obvious opposition to seeing the most powerful European country become a bastion of democracy. It’s little wonder the French revolution ultimately descended into chaos and failure—though its ideals never went away, and continued to resurface until France became a proper, permanent republic by the end of the 19th century (around the time we were gifted the Statue of Liberty as an expression of democratic solidarity).
During the Cold War, the French—no doubt reeling from their defeat in WWII—opted to go their own way when it came to national defense. Rather than join NATO and “mooch” of the U.S., as many Americans grumble, they developed the Force de Frappe, a triad of air-, sea- and land-based nuclear weapons intended for deterrence. France was concerned that in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, the Americans—already bogged down in the Vietnam War and afraid of Soviet retaliation against the United States—would not come to their aide. Hence why its nuclear arsenal is the largest in the world after America’s and Russia’s, and why its military is the most active and powerful in the West after the U.S. (Even the Pentagon has conceded as much, given the country’s pivotal military interventions in North Africa and Syria.)