Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lest we mis-remember

France had a horrible time in the World Wars. She lost even more young men that Britian in the Great War, and reminders of her occupation during the Second World War are frequently visible when you visit an Atlantic beach. When I first came to France this really hit home. Somehow, Second World War memories in England are rather cosy, and lots of great vintage themes date from this time - what about Make Do and Mend, for example? There are no fond memories of WWII here.
Growing up in the UK, two sitcoms influenced my feelings about the Second World War - the excellent Dad's Army, about the Home Guard; and 'Allo, 'Allo, a somewhat weaker romp around Resistance France. Both shared the same affectionate humour, though, with characters weak and strong, brave and cowardly, and all rather bumbling.
Much more recently, though, I've spotted an English-language comical stereotype creeping in about the French; one which was surely never there in my childhood. This is the lazy notion that whenever 'war' and 'the French' are mentioned in the same breath, the punchline is going to be: 'We surrender!'I have heard this in films, on otherwise affectionate national stereotype jokey emails, and even on the usually more intelligent Radio 4 comedy slot. Because I live here and I like and respect the French, and because I have a clear recall of how we USED to joke about the French, I think I'm right in saying that this stereotype is as modern as it is bizarre.
Do we say that Poland and the Netherlands were weak, cowardly or prone to surrender because an accident of geography placed them next door to a country that suddenly had a megalomaniac for a leader?
Obvously we don't, so where has this lazy notion come from that it was all France's fault that it was occupied? Our English speaking nations fought off Hitler's armies due to great leadership, brave servicepeople AND physical separation from Nazi Germany.I'm afraid that this nasty humour has come about since France stood against the war in Iraq. I really don't want this blog to be a place to discuss the rights and wrongs of that war, because I think it's very likely that I have good friends on various sides of the debate. We are entitled to our political opinions. But why have commedians taken to this lazy idea that a recent political stance gives them the right to accuse the French people of past cowardice?I don't even know if this is something that you've noticed yourselves. But do look out for it from now on, although I really hope that the stereotype will die a death as people find it totally irrelevant and un-funny.
Well, sorry for the rant. I find it hard to rememer the events France has suffered while I hear people in my own language making little of those tragedies.I'll end with an affectionate joke which the French themselves enjoy, and recognise to be an amusing exaggeration of the truth. It's from the boys' favourite, Flushed Away, which sadly also contains the now-typical 'surrender' joke.

The villain, the British Toad, has a French cousin, 'Le Frog' - an assassin. Given a task by his cousin, Le Frog responds: 'We leave - immediately!'

One of his henchfrogs asks hesitantly: 'But what about dinner?'


After some thought comes the reply: 'We leave - in five hours!'


Pomona said...

My great-grandfather, who was an English soldier, was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French in the First World War. Under fire, he rescued an injured man from No Man's Land - I think all nationalities were unbelievably brave and had to endure things that we can barely imagine. Everyone suffers in wartime and I find the whole thing so very, very sad - I found visiting the war graves in northern France really distressing, and the Peace Museum in Caen was so moving, too.

Pomona x

TheMadHouse said...

Me and MadDad have been to the Peace Museum in Caan and to nearly all the cemeteries in Northern France. We also visited Arromanches and found it very very moving. We witnessed many a person break down in tears. I dont think it matters what nationality to you and I for one have never said anything bad of the French and will bring my children up to respect all the people who gave their lives for us. One of the saddest sites I have ever witness it those rows upon rows of graves with Known only unto God on them.

Michela said...

Thank you for this beautiful post Floss

marigold jam said...

We lived within sight (just) of Oradour sur Glane a town which was razed to the ground and all but 2 inhabitants killed by the SS during the war so I am very aware of the terrible time the French suffered during the war. One of my French friends however said that at least for us Brits we could hold our heads up high and be pround but she as a Frenchperson could not! She wasn't old enough to remember the war either. I think there were heros and cowards on all sides and it is easy to criticise after the event as always.


Lola Nova said...

What a thought provoking post. I remember when France first stood against the war in Iraq, our family had gone on an outing to a lake nearby; we stopped at a restaurant for lunch, they had a very patriotic decor and had actually crossed out "French Fries" (chips or pommes frites) on the menu and replaced it with "Freedom Fries!" It seemed so ridiculous and silly but, also made me so sad. A lot of anti-French sentiment was in the air and I did not understand it at all. The ravages of war are suffered by all.

Serenata said...

My great grandfather died in France during the Great War. When I first came to the UK one of the first things we did was drive to France to find his grave. I was very impressed by the way the French keep the war graves but at the same time overwhelmed by the tragedy of the war and the age of many of the dead soldiers. Not only that but you realise the scale when you see row after row of stark crosses.

Very thoughtful post Floss.

Tabiboo said...

A very beautiful thought provoking post. It is so difficult to know what is right or wrong and I guess some things stick in the mind. Hopefully with time attitudes will change though you do have to ask yourself sometimes - how much time?

take care,

Nina x

A Bun Can Dance said...

Dear Floss
Thank you for this post - it needed to be written and read. I totally agree, it is 'easy' for British people to view the war with rose tinted glasses - all the time forgetting just how fortunate our country was not to have been occupied. I cannot begin to imagine the horrors experienced by our European neighbours, not to mention Guernsey too. In history, WW2 was just 'yesterday' but how quickly we have forgotten the true horrors and allowed the experience to become a joke.
My parents often say that their fathers, both fought in the war, virtually never spoke about the war.... doesn't this just go to show how awful it must have been for them?
I could go on and on - I won't! Thank you for writing this, Floss.
Denise x