The Lovers Spat Between Chirac and Bush

News Abroad

Mr. Richard wrote the six-hour documentary series "Louisiana: A History," premiering on public television this fall and is a writer for the History News Service.

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During their meeting in the French lakeside town of Evian, Presidents George Bush and Jacques Chirac of France offered the begrudging little gestures of bonhomie that were expected of them. Nonetheless, with ugly anti-American protests in Paris and perfectly good French wine poured down the gutter in Peoria, this year we're finally at liberty to admit the hard, historical truth: Americans and French people can find each other really annoying.

Bush and Chirac are scheduled to meet again this December at a long-planned gala in New Orleans celebrating the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase. They're supposed to reenact the signing of the final treaties ceding the vast Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803. Although there's been no official cancellation of the event, nobody I know here in Louisiana is rushing to rent a tux.

Now, despite the recent spat, few believe there's any real ill will between France and the United States. They've enjoyed a staunch alliance for more than two hundred years and doubtless will for another two hundred. Rather, it's more like the little exasperations voiced by a quarrelsome old couple, married more years than either likes to remember. They just get on each other's nerves.

And they always have. Two centuries ago, the Americans and French living in New Orleans each discovered just how irritating the other could be. Today, with some 250,000 people still speaking the native French language, Louisiana is a curious fusion of the two cultures. Of course, French Louisianians like myself no longer have much in common with our cousins in Paris.

But in 1803, following the Purchase, the native population of New Orleans felt as though they had just been snatched from the cradle of the mother country. "A few of the French officers and citizens are mortified at the loss of this delightful country [Louisiana] and seem to foster a great hatred toward the Americans," wrote William C.C. Claiborne, the federal official appointed by Thomas Jefferson to claim the territory. "It requires much address and prudence to preserve the harmony of the city."

About a month after the Stars and Stripes were raised over New Orleans, the local militia was called to a ballroom on the report that some kind of trouble had erupted there. What they found was a good old-fashioned drunken brawl between the city's leading French and American citizens. As well-dressed officers and gentlemen wrestled on the floor, a handful of Americans stood on one side, noisily singing "Hail Columbia," while on the other the French fired back with a rousing rendition of "Allons, enfants de la Patrie." And all because they couldn't agree whether to dance in the French style or the American.

The derision they leveled against each other in 1803 sounds not unlike what we've heard this year. To the Americans, Louisiana's native French, called "Creoles," seemed conceited, impractical and effete. Settlers moving into the territory argued that the Creoles would never make good Americans. They were too licentious and corrupt, they claimed; too interested in fancy foods, drinking and gambling ever to govern themselves, too fanatically devoted to leisure to build sound businesses.

Meanwhile, to the Creoles, the Americans appeared crude, reckless and dangerously ambitious. To put it another way, they looked upon Americans in much the same way that the French presently regard certain Texans.

The one trait Creoles shared with Americans was an unassailable stubbornness. Even Governor Claiborne, normally a reserved, tightly buttoned gentleman, found Louisiana's French infuriating. "To bring these folks to their senses," he wrote, "we'll have to aim cannons at them and knock down the walls of the city from top to bottom!"

As flummoxed as he was by the French Creoles, Claiborne managed to keep his cannons quiet and leave the city walls standing. He knew he'd have to meet them halfway. So, with prudent humility, the governor learned to loosen his collar a little, to compromise, to speak French, and to practice crafty politics, Louisiana-style. He worked hard to court the favor of his skeptical citizenry. Meanwhile, he also worked to court a Creole bride.

Eventually, Claiborne won the hearts of both. He married into the prominent New Orleans family of Clarisse Duralde and went on to become the first democratically chosen leader of Louisiana. Claiborne's election -- and his marriage -- foretold the eventual union of American and French cultures here after the Purchase. Louisiana evolved a peculiar identity, no longer the offspring of old Europe, yet never conventionally American either. It's a good reminder that the best marriages are based on a certain deference and flexibility.

The French and the Americans undoubtedly will remain closely wed, no matter how irritating the old couple may find each other at times. Nevertheless, Presidents Bush and Chirac could do much to restore confidence in that relationship by putting aside their pride and coming to the big anniversary in New Orleans later this year, by sitting at Claiborne's table where the Purchase was finalized and renewing their vows.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Bill Heuisler - 8/3/2003

I highly recommend Alistair Horne's "A Savage War of Peace" about Always Remorseful France's zealous attempt to bestow culture and pieds noirs on former allies. The French cherished Algerians and wanted to live with them and share everything. Alas, as often happens in one-sided, precocial relationships, the swain overstepped. DeGaulle embraced the Army, embraced the Colons and embraced Ben Bella while consummating no one. Ben Bella felt smothered, lusted for release. The feckless French thought it was a menage a trois; Ben Bella thought there were too many in bed. So Charles the Gaul carried on the guilty tradition of Charles The Hammer by misunderstanding Arabs and creating more terrorism.

You're right Colin Powell should have known.

Fubar - 8/3/2003

Force Du Crap

P.S. Troublion - 8/3/2003


With a few minor exceptions (Statue of Liberty, Pershing and Hemingway, Bogart's final line in "Casablanca") I would agree with your negative characterization of post de-Grassian Frog-Yank relations. No lovers, no lovers spat.

A seasoned diplomat would have been aware, at least subconsciously, of this history. Colin Powell, a competent and experienced military man, was and is a fish out of water in Foggy Bottom. He was outfoxed at the UN while trying, like a good soldier, to follow orders...orders to secure a fig leaf for a half-baked and hypocritical policy.

I will not attempt to untangle your theory about post-Merovingian guilt, but would suggest that some Algerians might dispute any notion of a long-term love relationship (stained or otherwise) between Arabs and French politicians.


Bill Heuisler - 8/2/2003

It's like President Clinton and Monica: Without the tell-tale stain there's nothing. There was no relationship until the stain was revealed, and to have a lover's spat there must be lovers. Since Lafayette and De Grasse French-American affection has been all one-way and unpleasant. Is there a stain?

Powell's diplomacy was based on trusting the French to favor the US over an Arab State. He agreed to a second Security Council vote on the Iraq resolution in order to mollify the French, who promised to vote with us if Saddam remained in violation. The French broke their promise and threatened to veto anything harmful to good-customer-Saddam. Colin didn't understand the peculiar relationship the French maintain with Arab Nations.
Their betrayal was merely continued restitution.

You see, French diplomacy has been en penitence since the Merovingians. Every French Statesman understands how the modern terrorist problem could've been avoided if Pepin's bastard had simply allowed the Umayyads some land for peace. The Austrasian Mayor killed Abd-Ar-Rahman instead of allowing time for peaceful resolutions. They now know the Arabs had no designs on Languedoc and Burgundy, but were merely misunderstood evangelists. The stain is Arab. The French have been making amends ever since.
Bill Heuisler

Nom de Plume - 8/2/2003

Monsieur Heuisler, I never said that frogs weren't frogs. On the contrary, De Gaulle certainly had more than his surplus share Of Gall. But just because Chirac et Cie refused to roll over and die, while Colin studied Diplomacy 101, does not mean that there is any kind of "lover's spat" between Yanks and those who donated half their language to them.


John Kipper - 8/1/2003

Bill, after carefully rereading the entire thread, I fully see the context of your post. Your point was cleverly enough put, I was just too dense to get it the first time. Its a good thing that I wasn't snippy in my response or I would have looked even dumber.

Still, Yul Brenner's protrayal was great.

Bill Heuisler - 8/1/2003

My "clever" little put-on of a rather snotty post from a Faux Frenchman evidently wasn't clever enough. After not recalling the Atlantic Ocean, Paris, the Arch de Triumphe and French air space, my backwoods innocence was supposed to mistake a Marquis for Jean the bane of Sir Edward Pakenham. Be assured, nearly every poster on HNN knows the difference (particularly the Conservatives). The knowledge was there; the technique failed.
Best, Bill

John Kipper - 8/1/2003

Bill, I normally agree with your agruements, but the bayou pirate was Jean Laffite, not Lafayette, the French nobleman who strove so hard for democraccy in America and France.
Laffite, by the way was very romantically protrayed by Yul Brenner, with hair, in a great de Mille pariotic film in the mid-fifties.

Bill Heuisler - 7/31/2003

Mr. Troublion,
Your intellectual superiority is noted. Those of us who fumbled our way across that big ocean a few times recall how poorly we were treated in restaurants in that city with the big stone arch. We remember De Gaulle left NATO, his "Force du Frappe", the B-One that crashed because the French wouldn't allow the US to use their airspace (where ever that is) en route to Libya. Our tiny brains twitched when the French Government helped Saddam build a Nuclear reactor and our calloused sensibilities were mildly titillated when the French opposed our efforts in the UN and finally said they would vote against us no matter what we did.

Lafayette would even dislike France today, but what does a bayou pirate know anyhow?
Bill Heuisler

Charles V. Mutschler - 7/31/2003

M. Troublion -




Ralph E. Luker - 7/31/2003

Mr. Kriz, Professor Dresner is exactly right. Your initial post was unnecessarily nasty and set the tone for what followed from it. Mr. Richard's essay deserved intelligent discussion and your initial post made that unlikely. You owe us an apology and you owe yourself a change of behavior. If that isn't possible, you might do us the courtesy of going elsewhere.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/31/2003

Mr. Kriz,

You may have your facts right (though even my most radical sources haven't come up with some of your allegations), but your style is vulgar and abusive. If you really want to hurt Bush and his supporters, you have to convince them, and at this point nobody who has any doubt in their mind would give your assertions any credence, while the staunch Bush-ites will use your tone as proof of the poor quality of their opposition.

More to the point, comments like this take the fun out of having real discussions. In this case you've hijacked what could have been a perfectly interesting discussion of French-US relations and politicians and turned it into a very unpleasant sludge.

Stephen Kriz - 7/30/2003

"Takes one to know one" - I haven't heard that one since 5th grade. What's next? - "I'm rubber and you're glue, what bounces off me, sticks to you"?! Sheesh......

I guess what passes for debate among Bush lovers is infantile nonsense like this.

I'll ignore your personal attacks. You obviously came to a gunfight with a squirt gun. So Bush is a "decent man", eh? Let's see - abused animals as a child, 20+ years of alcoholism and cocaine abuse, raped a 15 year old when he was 25, paid the minor's family off to abort his love child, cheated on his wife, allegations of spousal abuse, grandpappy was Hitler's financier - Yup, that's one right decent fellow!

Then, after the foolish people of Texas elect this contemptible piece of ambulatory sewage, he goes on to execute more people than any governor since the Civil War, loots the state treasury, allows his CEO buddies in the oil and extractive industries to rape the air and water, etc., etc. Now he is doing the same to the United States, while gutting the Bill of Rights.

Sorry, Mr. Thomas, this guy is not decent. I wish Republicans could just once, just once admit they were wrong and do the decent thing and impeach this abomination, along with his handler, Dickless Cheney, before they damage this great Republic irreparably.

Pierre Troublion - 7/30/2003

The supposed "rift" between Americans and French is mainly in the imaginations of people who could not find the Seine on a map of the world or tell the difference between Lafayette and Lobachevsky.

C'est la vie.