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FRENCH HISTORY

Don’t ask Google, ask us: Why are the French always surrendering?

In this mini series, The Local answers common questions that comes up when you start typing questions with "France" or "the French" into the Google search engine.

A French Special Operation Forces trains local soldiers in Mali.
A French Special Operation Forces trains local soldiers in Mali. France's overall military record is not as bad as many believe. (Photo by Thomas COEX / AFP)

Why are the French . . . always surrendering?

“How do you confuse a French soldier? Give them a rifle and ask them to shoot it.”

One of the most enduring clichés about the French is that they are always surrendering. The long historical record of the French military suggests that this is a slightly unfair stereotype, but we will explore where its origins nonetheless.

That the French always surrender when the going gets tough is one of the most enduring stereotypes about the country

This sentiment was encapsulated perfectly in a 1995 episode of The Simpsons in which the French are described as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”. 

The consensus among historians is that this trope comes from the French capitulation to the Nazis in WWII. Within a matter of weeks, Hitler was able to capture Paris and force the French into submission. 

In 1940, during the Battle of France that preceded the French surrender, France had more men mobilised than at the start of WW1 in 1914. It also had one of the strongest naval fleets in the world, which could have feasibly evacuated the majority of the troops to Britain or North Africa. Instead, chaos reigned and most of the military hardware fell into the hands of the Nazis. 

In July 1940, after the surrender, Britain asked French admirals in North Africa to surrender their fleet to avoid it being taken by the Germans. When the French refused, the Brits blew up this fleet. 

The myth that France had been under-prepared for war was propagated by the leader of the collaborationist Vichy government, Marshall Philippe Pétain, and persists to this day.

In reality there were multiple reasons for the sudden French collapse, including the surprise German attack through the Ardennes. 

While there were pockets of resistance to the Nazis under occupation, a substantial proportion of the French population collaborated with the Germans. The Vichy government and French police forces actively took part in the Holocaust. 

The eventual outcome of the war means it is easy, but perhaps unfair, to look back at the past and regard French surrender to the Nazis as a cowardly decision, but France was far from the only country to fall to the Nazi war machine. 

Setting the record straight

Despite their reputation for surrender, a long view of history reveals a track record of grit and at times, victory for French military. 

The Eiffel tower stands in a park known as the Champs de Mars. This site is named after the Roman god of war and marks the spot where some believe the Parisi tribe, ancient settlers of Paris, made a stand against against the Roman army during the conquest of Gaul. History suggests that they were promptly massacred – but at least they tried. 

Fast forward nearly 1,000 years to the medieval period and France had become one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe. The Normans, an ethnic mix of Scandinavian vikings and Western Franks, even went on to conquer Britain in 1066. 

Moving on to the 18th century under the reign of Louis XV and France was one of the world’s dominant powers, with vast territories extending into large parts of what are now the United States and Canada. France eventually ceded much of this land away but during the American war of independence, France was decisive in kicking Britain out of North America, sending more troops than Britain and the 13 colonies combined. 

The French military conquered huge swathes of the world in the 19th century, creating a colonial empire that stretched from Africa, to the Caribbean to Southeast Asia. 

During WW1, France couldn’t have emerged victorious without the support of Britain and the United States but was nonetheless instrumental in winning the war and suffered close to 2 million military and civilian casualties. 

Today, France spends a greater proportion of GDP on defence than most other NATO members, has the largest military force in the EU and the sixth largest armed forces in the world. It has been involved in military interventions in at least nine countries since 2001. 

France is progressively withdrawing its forces from Operation Barkhane, a counter-insurgency operation led by French forces in West Africa. 

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Member comments

  1. Hmmm, havent you forgotten someone? Smallish chap, bicorne hat, ended up on one of the smaller British colonies?

  2. My grandfather fought on the Western Front in WW1 with the Royal Norfolk Regiment for almost the entire four years of the war, was wounded twice as well as being gassed.
    I clearly remember him telling me that whenever there was a French regiment or division in the front line next to them during a German attack, that they had to watch their flank as much as the enemy in front of them, as the French were prone to ‘disappearing’ from the line, leaving them open to attack from that flank.
    This may well be a generalisation and I’m sure it wasn’t the same in every case, but he always said that the ‘Tommy’s’ felt that they fought harder to keep the Germans out of France then the French did.

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FRENCH HISTORY

French history myths: France only sent one Statue of Liberty to the US

You might already know that New York's Lady Liberty was a gift from France, but did you know she is far from the only Liberty figure, and not even the only one to have travelled from France to the United States?

French history myths: France only sent one Statue of Liberty to the US

Myth: The French have only sent the Americans one Statue of Liberty

It is likely common knowledge that the United States’ iconic 93-metre-tall Lady Liberty is actually French in origin, gifted to the USA to mark 100 years since American independence.

But you might not realise that the New York City monument is not the only one the French have gifted to the United States.

In 2021, another – this time smaller – Statue of Liberty travelled to New York from France.

This replica was also meant to be a symbol of French-American friendship. Having previously been on display in Paris with the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts, the statue travelled across the Atlantic to the United States in June of 2021. It eventually made its way from New York to Washington DC, where it went on display at the French ambassador’s residence for Bastille Day. It will remain there until 2031.

The conservatory told CNN that sending the statue to the United States was meant to “send a very simple message: Our friendship with the United States is very important, particularly at this moment. We have to conserve and defend our friendship.”

The original statue stands as the third tallest in the world, but she is not the only Lady Liberty in the world. The second-most famous Statue of Liberty was actually gifted to the French by Americans, specifically those living in Paris. Only a fourth of the height of the original, the Statue stands on the Île de Cygnes in the Seine river in Paris, facing westward toward the New York statue.

Several other replicas – at least 100 of them – exist across the world. There are several of them in France alone, and if you want to find them you can plan your Lady Liberty road trip by clicking HERE.

READ MORE: Where to find France’s 12 Statues of Liberty

The original Statue of Liberty also represents more than just the shared friendship between the United States and France.

French historian Édouard de Laboulaye came up with the idea for the statue and made the proposal for it in 1865. While the statue was intended to be a gift to strengthen the relationship between the two countries, Laboulaye was also an anti-slavery activist and avid supporter of the Union during the Civil War. He hoped that the statue would represent liberty and symbolise the freedom of thought repressed under Napoleon III’s regime. 

Eventually, it was sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi who brought the statue to life (reputedly modelled her face on his mother) helped by a famous engineer known for another and tall structure – Gustave Eiffel.

The statue was intended to mark 100 years since the American declaration of independence in 1776, but initially only the torch-bearing arm was displayed, the full statute was not finally completed for another 10 years and was dedicated in 1886.

This article is part of our August series on myths and misconceptions from French history.

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