Steinberg: Time to revise ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’

SHARE Steinberg: Time to revise ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’

Groundskeeper Willie from “The Simpsons.” | Fox

Chicago was founded by Frenchmen.

A fact so little recognized, it looks strange in print. But true. The city began with Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette, born in France, arriving in 1673 to preach le bon Dieu to Native Americans. His canoemate was fur trader Louis Jolliet, born in French Quebec. And don’t forget Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the city’s first permanent resident. He is usually thought of as black and Haitian, period, ignoring that Haiti was, at the time, like a third of the United States including Illinois, under the control of France.

Even the word “Chicago” is a French mash of the Algonquin name for the place, having to do either with onions or bad smells (the word “skunk” is related).

Why this history? Facebook erupted in cries of “Vive la France” at Sunday’s victory of centrist Emmanuel Macron over nationalist Marine Le Pen. Half of America rejoiced, congratulating French friends.

“I think everybody in America was quite relieved, even more than in France,” said Marie Weber, brand specialist at the Alliance Française, a Chicago cultural center.

An apt moment to review our long, tangled relationship with the French.


Call it “admiring contempt.” Americans inherited disdain of France from the English. The English resented the French because France conquered them in 1066, which is why our common language is laden with fancy French-derived words like “fancy,” a descendent of fantasie.

Our admiration swelled after the American Revolution, when a young adventurer, the Marquis de Lafayette, fought under George Washington and rallied his nation to support our cause.

Not that the French reciprocated. While other Europeans — Italians, Germans, Irish — flocked here, the French didn’t. First, they had other places to go — Quebec, colonies such as Algeria. Second, they were already in France, and viewed the New World as a poisonous swamp of snakes and insects, whose animals were stunted, men idiotic and dogs too dispirited to bark. Americans were not only stupid, Stendhal griped, but the country “has no opera.”

During the American Civil War, France sympathized with the South. Lincoln struck them as a crude, inhuman, almost insane tyrant whose rigidity brought on the war.

That most enduring symbol of the supposed friendship between France and the United States, the Statue of Liberty, was the result of French anxiety over the Americans’ growing sympathy for Germany after the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War. Many Frenchmen considered the statue exactly the sort of monstrosity Americans appreciate: “nothing more than a kitschy colossus straight out of some Cincinnati bazaar,” wrote French scholar Philippe Roger in “The American Enemy,” his book on French anti-Americanism, “one of those ugly and cumbersome things you give a provincial aunt with notoriously bad taste.” They were also wounded when Congress refused to pay for the cost of the statue’s pedestal.

By then, American attitudes toward the French were fairly set. She was the land of sex — hence “French kissing.” The land of cooking — for decades, any high cuisine restaurant in America by necessity was French. And fashion, a view that goes back centuries. Shakespeare damns “these strange flies, these fashion mongers.”

People resent what they emulate. “The head monkey in Paris puts on a traveler’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same,” Thoreau complained. Which didn’t stop us from doing it. The Ferris wheel of 1893 Columbian Exposition was a conscious effort to one-up the French with a spinning Eiffel Tower.

My view was influenced by World War II. The French were shrugging capitulators and oily collaborators, Captain Renault from “Casablanca,” serving the Nazis when convenient, smoothly shifting to do good when safe. A view captured by Ken Keeler, a writer my age, who in a 1995 episode of “The Simpsons” dubbed the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”

No more. As World War II passes from living memory, it makes sense that old biases be re-elevated. Germany came out of its shadow when Angela Merkel accepted a million refugees from Syria. And while the United States demonized minorities and denies truth, France’s image is burnished by her new, not-at-all-mendacious-or-crazy new president, and the country invites our scientists to emigrate.

“I guess we can’t make fun of the French anymore,” John Scalzi tweeted Sunday.

That might be overstating the case. There will always be French pop music, French grandiosity, and those loosely knotted scarves the men wear. And they’ll certainly still be laughing at us, and with good reason.

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