Guest article by Philip Porter
We have a tricky relationship, don’t we – we and the French? To hear us most of the time, you’d think we were adolescent siblings. “Rude, snail-eating, smelly, effeminate, debauched, arrogant French!” “Loud, overweight, can’t-dress, gun-happy, prudish, ignorant Americans!” Strange, isn’t it, that it was the French who declared after 9/11, “Today, we are all Americans.” Odd that the French flag can be found all over our pages on social media in America today.
And it’s almost as though we Americans don’t understand the empathy we feel for the tragedy in Paris. It reminds me of the awkward solidarity my two middle sons share on those occasions when one is really hurting. Most of their lives each has considered the other their arch-nemesis, but when the chips are down, something rises up that overrides the jealousies and offenses of the past. They can’t put their finger on it yet, and they would be horrified if mom and dad made them express the sentiment openly.
It’s going to be suggested that our grief for the French isn’t egalitarian enough, that we should be feeling the same pain for tragedies wherever they are happening. (Where’s the Iraqi flag, the Syrian flag, the Palestinian flag on our posts?) We shouldn’t be ashamed of our feelings, though, because there are very good reasons for them.
America’s first and oldest ally is France. In our revolution against the powerful British Empire, we needed aid, and the French were there. In 1778 they allied themselves with us and declared war on Britain, sending money, supplies, an army and a navy to our nation. Even before their formal entry into our war, French citizens had sailed to America and volunteered in the Continental Army. French blood was mingled with ours on American soil at the birth of our nation.
Six years after the ratification (in Paris) of America’s independence from England, the French National Assembly published the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” the foundational document of the French Revolution. It was drafted by the Marquis de Lafayette, one of the French volunteers in the American Revolution, with help from his good friend, Thomas Jefferson. It was modelled after our own Declaration of Independence and looked to the same philosophers to help articulate its truths.
In the 1860’s, as the centennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence approached, the French decided they should participate in the celebration. So they conceived, commissioned and financed the Statue of Liberty. It was crafted in Paris and stands in New York Harbor, America’s most iconic emblem – a gift of the French people.
On D Day, 73,000 Americans landed on Normandy beaches to liberate France from Nazi Germany. On that one day alone, 6,600 soldiers of our Greatest Generation spilled their blood on French soil for French freedom. The French never forgot that sacrifice – to this day they receive American visitors along the coast with welcome, and our veterans with veneration. Monuments and memorials stand throughout France dedicated by the French people to the American and allied forces who liberated them. Thousands of American graves there continue to be maintained and honored by the French.
In 2011, 67 years after D Day, Thom Cartledge of Massachusetts was finally able to visit the grave of his uncle in the American cemetery at Normandy. As he planted small French and American flags by the grave, his guide, a young French girl, used a bucket of sand and a damp sponge to scrub the white cross clean. He asked her how long he could stay there and was stunned by her answer: “Your uncle gave his life so that we can be free. You can stay as long as you want.”
France is the brother in your family that joined a different political party. You fought and bickered growing up and no one can stand to be in the same room with you when you argue at Christmas. But when tragedy strikes, you don’t remember the time he hit you, stole your girlfriend or made fun of your haircut. You remember the common blood and core values that you share. What other people have, for one another’s freedom, shed more blood on our soil, and have received more of our blood on theirs? That’s why their pain today is ours.
You can reach Philip by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Facebook /philip.s.porter