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”.
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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.