PARIS (Reuters) – What’s an American in Paris to do when he finds himself agreeing with the anti-French rhetoric of some compatriots back home? Help is now at hand in the shape of a French reprint of a booklet handed out to American GIs stationed in postwar France more than half a century ago to help them get to grips with the customs and history of the host country.
“French women are loose,” “Every time we go to a night club, these cursed French swindle us” and “All the French want is to have a good time,” are just some of the moans dealt with in the book designed to improve relations.
Discovered by chance by a history buff, the tract has been translated into French and turned into a surprise best seller thanks to the uncanny resemblance between some of the complaints from the World War II era and those heard this year during the Iraq dispute.
“It’s very funny and our readers find it amusing. They are also surprised and always ask if it really was given to American GI’s, they first think it’s a joke,” said Pierre Coutelle, 27, a Parisian bookseller who read the book.
“But it doesn’t change their opinion on the current Francophobia, it’s a fun historical document.”
The original tract was printed because once the euphoria of the liberation of Paris and other parts of France in 1944 had worn off, relations between American GIs and locals began to sour.
“In 1945 the U.S. army found a lot of problems in France. The American soldiers didn’t understand the attitudes of the French people and this bred Francophobia, which was very embarrassing,” explained Balbino Katz, who found the text in an attic sale of old books in a small French village.
Intrigued, he picked up the tract for $1 and printed a few extracts in French magazine, “History’s Adventures,” which he co-edits. There they caught the eye of publishers Le Cherche Midi, who issued the entire text, word for word.
“Our friends, the French” (“112 Gripes about the French” in its original incarnation) hit the book shelves in June and has already sold some 15,000 copies — three times the initial print run.
“It’s a very droll book and we can see that the Francophobia of 1945 was not that different from the Francophobia we have seen this year,” Katz said.
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Some of the grumbles were echoed this year after France refused to back the U.S.-led war on Iraq.
“In 25 years we have come twice to Europe to save the French” and “We spend our whole time getting the French out of a pickle. And they, have they ever done anything for us?,” are two of the complaints listed.
In defense of the French, the book’s original compilers note France’s role in the American Revolution and clarify Washington’s reasons for joining World War II.
“We came because we, the Americans, were threatened by a power that was hostile, aggressive and dangerous. If France fell in June 1940, we didn’t land until June 1944… There was Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war against America.”
The row over Iraq prompted some American cafes to rebrand French fries as “freedom fries,” while others refused to serve French wine and President Bush’s Air Force One plane put “freedom toast” on its breakfast menu.
Katz said the book’s message was still resonant today, when chilly transatlantic relations have sparked a slump in the number of U.S. visitors to France.
“It’s not the French who are defending France in this book, it’s the Americans. That’s why we joke that the French government should pay for the text to be reprinted in English and distribute it in the United States,” he said.
The book explains customs that bewildered the soldiers, from the ingrained cafe culture to kissing on the cheeks as the traditional greeting, and answers the gripe: “What have these cursed frog-eaters ever done for the world?” with a three-page list of renowned French intellectuals.
“On the one hand, it’s embarrassing for the French because it shows what the U.S. soldiers thought of them. On the other hand, it’s embarrassing for the Americans because most of their complaints turn out to be false and xenophobic,” Katz said.
However the book does agree with some of the gripes, admitting that “life changes slowly in France” and that “certainly the French don’t wash themselves often enough.”
“No one is asking you to love the French,” it concedes. “But you won’t gain anything from hating them either.”