Do the French Know Something We Don't?

News Abroad

Mr. Applebaum is Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey.

Most Americans are unfamiliar with French History.  They know little of the era when France was the superpower of Europe and less about the events that brought an end to French hegemony.  It would be helpful if they knew more.

French revolutionaries ended the Old Regime and imagined they could lead the world by example.  The ability to demonstrate the benefits and blessings of freedom -- civil liberties and laisser-faire economics -- became an illusion.  Religious zealots (militant, traditional Catholics) regarded republican policies and practices as blasphemous and heretical.  They responded to the new secular state with civil disobedience that quickly turned to violent opposition. 

Simultaneously, the defenders of royalism formed a coalition to restore the traditional power.  Both international war and civil war developed and grew.  Robespierre, before taking leadership of the group that carried executive power, warned that international warfare would subvert the exercise of fundamental freedoms of the press, speech and assembly.  His arguments proved to be true.  His worst fears were realized and, ironically, he became an agent who played a key part in fulfilling his own prophecy. 

The domestic response to the civil war included a Law of Suspects.  Details of this legislation are strikingly similar to the Patriot Act.  In the name of defense of the doctrines of rights and responsibilities, the French government and people launched what we now call the Reign of Terror.  Fear of dissenters turned neighbor against neighbor.  Due process and civil liberties disappeared in the shadows of the call to patriotism and the defense of republican principles and La Nation.  Capital punishment, once opposed by Robespierre as a contradiction to the fundamental values and dignity of human life embraced by republicanism, lost out to Dr. Guillotine. 

Unable to engage in traditional forms of military
combat, people in Castile and Aragon created
the foundations of what we now call terrorism.

A citizen army defeated opponents in the civil war.  Resisters went underground and waited to act.  The republicans organized victory.  They turned from a policy of preservation of freedom at home to preemptive action to install sympathetic regimes and thereby prevent threats from abroad.  Imperial leaders (Napoleon Bonaparte) cloaked conquest in the garb of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

In time, French armies with great technological advantage and enormous power set out to liberate the Iberian Peninsula.  They were not welcomed in a region where the militant Catholicism of the reconquista and the power of traditional religion were deeply embedded in the culture.  Traditional elites, from the nobility and the church mobilized peasants.  They responded to the French promise of the "liberation of Spain" with guerilla warfare.  Unable to engage in traditional forms of military combat, people in Castile and Aragon created the foundations of what we now call terrorism.  They claimed legitimacy on the basis of resistance to state terrorism.  The goals, strategies and tactics employed against the French mark a turning point in world history.  Thereafter, groups throughout the world have found the resources and will to challenge traditional uses of overwhelming state military power. 

Many historians date the decline of France to the death and destruction that flowed from the republican era and Napoleonic Wars.  Some argue that the vitality of the French economy -- considered the largest and most thriving in the world -- never recovered from the loss of human life and material resources. 

Is George Bush a combination of Robespierre and Napoleon?  Are Islamic zealots similar to militant European Catholics?  Will the efforts to spread the secular Republican gospel be viewed as a deception designed to install American Imperial power?  Will the human treasure of the United States, the young people called upon to kill in the name of freedom, face a future of debt and decline engendered by the policies and practices of our current leadership?  Is it possible that contemporary French leaders, understanding their own history and decline, are trying to save us from making new mistakes that will lead us down a similar path?   


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Gus Moner - 3/30/2003

Mr Heuisler is again managing to rile people up. We have errors here in your comments, sir. MOST people in the USA ARE unfamiliar with the history of France. Perhaps you are not, however go to a shopping mall and start polling. You’ll quickly see that the gentleman was correct.

France has been in a number of wars it has not emerged victorious from, this is true. However, they never surrendered in WWI, where their army stopped the famous German Schlieffen Plan designed to, in a sickle manoeuvre, come behind the French armies rushing to met the Germans in Belgium at the battle of the Marne where they wrote military history by transporting troops in civilian taxis, lorries and other mechanised vehicles, to reinforce the Marne front and halt the German advance. Wrong there.

In addition, they fought and died with bravery and heroism in that brutal war. ‘Significant’ victory is in the eye of the beholder. One can say the same for the USA. What significant victory have the USA had in the past 58 years? Gulf War I? Please.
Are Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Panama, Grenada, are these ‘significant victories’?

Finally, Mr Heuisler, where on earth has it been shown that we are fighting Iraqis because they are proven to be “terrorists who have attacked our country”?
Now, that’s chutzpah

Gus Moner - 3/30/2003

The eras were different. Guerrilla warfare, however, includes terrorist acts. It includes disguising as civilians to fool, trick or deceive the enemy. Attacks on sensitive areas, and other acts we now consider heinous. Soviet, French and Yugoslav partisans performed many acts of what we now consider terrorism. They hung suspected collaborators in public squares as warnings, they executed men, women and children, stole food, set villages alight, blew up bridges… you name it.

In the end, terrorists attack where, when and whom they can. It is a relatively new form of warfare that has developed as superior forces face down unarmed or militarily weak nations. It is ghastly, however terrorists will tell you they have no other means to attack their foes, and that it works. Moreover, they say it is no different, from the perspective of results, from a missile slamming into X area and wiping out X number of civilians.

Many Spanish cities still celebrate as a holiday the day of they expelled the French.

Wesley Smart - 3/29/2003

I'd be willing to bet a great deal of money that the United States will not use chemical, biological or nuclear weapons first.

William H. Naumann - 3/28/2003

Pertinent and ominous. Thank you.

orla diez - 3/28/2003

Para tu lectura

Bill Heuisler - 3/28/2003

Mr. Madison,
We all appreciate your attempts to bring us back to a full appreciation of history. But while I stew in a "...self-inflicted confusion of nitpicking semantics, perhaps the rest of us could return to Applebaum's original historical parallel:"
Good point. And perhaps you should pay attention to what was written before presuming to correct the hoi polloi.

For instance, the erudite Mr Applebaum manages to insult and underestimate us all with a foolish comment in the beginning:
"Most Americans are unfamiliar with French history."

No, Mr. Applebaum, most Americans have run out of patience with a country whose last great military leader was Corsican, who surrendered quickly in two World Wars leaving allies exposed, who destroyed her own fleet rather than allow it to fight Nazis, who have not won a significant military victory in nearly two centuries...and yet who presume to interfere in our war against terrorists who have attacked our country. We know our history.

Then Mr. Applebaum has the chutzpah to claim:
"Is it possible that contemporary French leaders, understanding their own history and decline, are trying to save us from making new mistakes that will lead us down a similar path?"

Don't worry, Misters Applebaum and Madison, Americans know all about French history. We do not choose to follow such ignomy.
We will not surrender to anyone; we will keep faith with our allies and we will destroy terrorists wherever we find them.
The United States will not follow France into humiliation and disgrace. To suggest otherwise is both pompous and ignorant.
Bill Heuisler

Albert Madison - 3/28/2003

While the ever-abrasive Heuisler stews in his self-inflicted confusion of nitpicking semantics, perhaps the rest of us could return to Applebaum's original historical parallel:

1. Another historian's take on Napoleon in the Peninsula:

"The Peninsular War is important in the context of Napoleon's entire career...For the first time he seems to have seriously underestimated the degree of resistance he would arouse...Despite a number of victories...Napoleon was unable to bring the war to an end. Many of the inhabitants took to the hills to engage in guerilla fighting."
-Charles Breunig, "The Age of Revolution", pp. 102-03.

2. Recent news item: "US gears up for long campaign"

"The US military has admitted that stiff Iraqi resistance is slowing the progress of the invasion force as battles rage around strategic towns in the south.

The US army's senior ground commander in Iraq, General William Wallace, warned that long supply lines and Iraqi guerrilla-style tactics had reduced the chances for the swift war military planners had hoped for.

'The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we'd war-gamed against,' he told The Washington Post."

BBC News 28-Mar-03

hmm... Heraclitus - 3/27/2003

"France is a country where it is illegal to boo the French national anthem. Would any such measure fly here? Certainly not."

We'd all like to think so, anyway.

tomato - 3/26/2003

It would have been political suicide for Chirac to support the war. If the country had been split on the war, maybe he would have jumped aboard the Bush war wagon. with 80-90% against the war, he had no choice.

How dare the French put their national interests before ours.

Walter knight - 3/26/2003

I don't think anyone in the Bush Administration , or France, or England, or Rome, or ? thought that their bid for world conquest would end in disaster. As the famous saying goes: "Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it."

It's not that the Bush Administration is unaware of previous Imperial efforts and consequences, it's just that it feels like we are stronger than everyone else. They may be right, but so where the French, English, etc.

The only problem is that this time, weapons of mass destruction are involved. How much do you want to bet that America uses them first?

Who cares who uses them last?

Mac - 3/26/2003

Is France's past comparable to our present situation? All great nations have come to a point when their ability to maintain their power has come up short when pursuing nationalist goals beyound their own borders. In a quick survey of history one could easily find enough comparable situations to make even the suggestion appear to be a text book example.

France isn't acting out of some enlightened position, but in it's own self interest. The U.S./U.K. war effort provides France and others (Russia and China for example.) the opportunity to develop new ties and relationships with the mid-east. France is attempting to position itself as viable alternate for those nations and interests seeking to undermine the U.S. single super power status.

The economic interest should be evident enough from their recent trnsaction with Irag, Iran and Syria. After all, they are the third largest military exporters and have extensive dealings not only in the mid-east but Africa as well (Their recent dipolmatic efforts in the Ivory Coast would be a good example.)

The only thin France is trying "teach" us is that an old dog has learned a new trick.

Bill Heuisler - 3/26/2003

Mr. Hill,
You were not called a bore, I apologized for boring you.
My original objection to the Applebaum article was his characterization of partisan guerillas as terrorists. Your answer is to list members of the military and politicians. Call me me Private-First-Class confused if you wish.

You wrote:
"factual" personages to "back up" my "claim" that people whose country has been invaded often fight back fiercely and in unconventional ways..." And then you listed:
Paul Revere - A Revolutionary War officer of Colonial Artillery (Lieutenant in 1756 and Lieutenant Colonel 1n 1776).
Francis Marion - A Revolutionary War General in South Carolina.
Nathan Forrest - An enlisted Private who rose to General of Confederate Cavalry.
Ho Chi Minh - A politician who Led Vietminh Independence Movement from 1941. Became Vietnam Republic President.

All these men resisted fiercely, three as military officers and one as revolutionary and Head of State. Each fought Armies.
You do not address my objection to Applebaum's claim. Your point is obscure at best. Partisans fighting military units are vastly different from terrorists who prey on civilians. Are you also confused, or are you sophisticated beyond all understanding?
Bill Heuisler

F.Hill - 3/26/2003

The modestly self-described "unsophisticated" Mr.Heuisler writes:

"The burden of proof for terrorism is usually on the accuser".

I am not the "accuser", Sergeant. That presumably was Prof. Applebaum. (I also thought this was a website not a court room).

I was the one who said he believed you. I do confess I was hoping you would provide us a few actual illustrative examples of anti-Napoleonic freedom fighters from your vast knowledge of military history.

Failing that, but also hoping against hope that I won't have to open up a textbook and actually read something myself, because this insightful, mild mannered and objective website is so much more fun, I will instead join your semantical discussion by noting that "guerrilla" is a Spanish word, whereas "terrorist", I'm guessing, is not.

As to your second point, where you again confuse me with Applebaum (he is the real full-fledged historian, not I - is your back-page button perhaps broken ?), herewith a few "factual" personages to "back up" my "claim" that people whose country has been invaded often fight back fiercely and in unconventional ways (I leave it to your superior vocabulary to add suitable descriptive adjectives to these figures)"

Paul Revere
Francis Marion
Nathan Forrest
Ho Chi Minh

Lisa Harp South - 3/25/2003

Why haven't you compared the French Revolution to the American Revolution? Would that show a difference in the two nations and what their democracy, or republicanism if you prefer, is based on? Which government, which people, is more enlightened? Hmmm, I think that we know the answer to that. Don't ever forget that some governments (France) make decisions against a war (this one) because of their economic dealings with one of the belligerents (Iraq). Yes, I'd say that France has much to lose if the Baath party falls.

Bill Heuisler - 3/25/2003

Mr. Hill,
Thank you for the promotion. Unevidenced? Perhaps you can posit the presence of French civilians near Bajadoz or Talavera? Or maybe you know where Spanish guerillas blew up a restaurant in Bayonne? Destroyed a school in Toulouse or Biarritz? No? The burden of proof for terrorism is usually on the accuser.

Mr. Hill, you have my sympathy. For a real historian like yourself our discussion of semantics must be so tedious. Please be patient with us. And - if it's not too much trouble - try to provide the unsophisticated with facts to back up your disdain.
Bill Heuisler

F. Hill - 3/25/2003

At last a real history professor on this website.

Not being one myself, I will accept Commandant Heuisler's unevidenced claims about the Penisular theatre.

But rather than discussing semantics, why not discuss the relevant historical comparison ? People whose country has been invaded (regardless of the reason for the invasion) are likely to be resentful and to fight back, and not necessarily by donning uniforms and reading chapters and verses of the Geneva conventions.

Bill Heuisler - 3/24/2003

Professor Applebaum,
You write:
"Unable to engage in traditional forms of military combat, people in Castile and Aragon created the foundations of what we now call terrorism."

Spanish partisans were not terrorists by any stretch of your hypothesis. Those brave men and women fought guerilla war against military units and military supply trains. They aided the British with information and by creating a hostile citizenry that eventually forced the French military to withdraw from the countryside into the large cities.
Terrorists practise atrocity by deliberately killing civilians.
Your characterization is an insult to brave guerilla fighters.
Bill Heuisler

Herodotus - 3/24/2003

France is a country where it is illegal to boo the French national anthem. Would any such measure fly here? Certainly not. Do the French know something we do not? Sure... the extent of their complicity with the Iraqi regime in constructing nuclear, chemical and biological facilities in violation of the armistic at the end of the first Gulf War. Or perhaps the details of the recent sale of military equipment to Iraqi Air Force in December 2002-January 2003.