I was about 10 when France decided not to join in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As a young French-American in Massachusetts, I remember feeling heartbroken, angry and most of all confused at the reactions this provoked among my American compatriots.
Some evenings, as political and cultural tensions rose, Dad would come home not even sure whether Mom would still be there.
That was the first time I ever wrote for a newspaper: I sent a letter to The Boston Globe, decrying the ridiculous resentment that French refusal to participate in Iraq had engendered.
As I grew older, I realized that such squabbles between the two nations weren’t unusual.
I know Charles de Gaulle’s relentless posturing taunted the U.S. government in a bid to make French independence known, when he publicly opposed its intervention in Vietnam, for example. I also know that both the Americans and the French have special names for those times when they get on each other’s nerves.
More importantly, I’ve come to appreciate that the French and the Americans can pull through for each other in spite of their differences, a solidarity that has been repeatedly showcased over the past 18 months.
This strong, albeit tense, friendship goes back all the way to (at least) 1778, when France became the first nation to recognize American nationhood, before the Revolution was even finished.
The first step that the Marquis de Lafayette made on American soil during his mission to aid the revolutionaries was in Charleston. According to Dr. Nicholas Butler, a historian at the Charleston County Public Library, “He never forgot our hospitality to him.”
Later, the French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, was swayed into approving an official alliance by the American rebel victory at Saratoga. And patriots were grateful for the vital support of French forces at the Battle of Yorktown, where they successfully defeated the British together.
Ultimately, America’s independence hinged on all participating parties signing an international agreement, the Treaty of Paris. What started as a French-American alignment of political interests finished as a multi-national cooperation that nobody has contested since.
Dr. Butler said, “Despite our many differences — both then and now — we are forever bound together by a deep history of mutual assistance.”
Inhabitants of Charleston decided to return the favor by welcoming the French fleeing Haiti after a revolt that began in 1791. Despite the culture shock produced by such a large influx of black and white Catholic refugees, South Carolinians, in Butler’s words, “rose to the challenge and welcomed the strangers as brothers and sisters.”
In fact, that wave of refugees constitutes the largest infusion of French ancestry in South Carolina, numerically more than the earlier settlement of French Huguenots. There is still a remnant of the refugees today in Charleston’s Société Française de Bienfaisance, founded by them in 1816.
But of the many lessons we could take from the history of French-American relations, the most important one may be that, as Butler put it, “benevolence and cooperation are the best foreign policies, because your long-time enemy might be your salvation in a time of crisis.”
As long as our nations face global issues, such as international terrorism and the growing wave of extremist nationalism, they will continue to need each other’s help to solve them.
Attempting to hide from the newly emerging negative effects of globalization or to ignore the runoff of toxic conflicts that were centuries in the making, like some in Britain did on June 23, is attractive but not realistic. The best way to deal with such issues is not through isolationism, but through willing cooperation, as history has shown us.
The U.S. and the U.K. talk of a special relationship, but people should see that there is also a special relationship between the U.S. and France. This friendship is embodied in the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the French to the Americans, which people the world over travel to see.
That is what I will be remembering as I celebrate during this year’s Independence Day. During both of them, I mean. Bastille Day — July 14 — may not be rooted in exactly the same sort of conflict, but the success of the American Revolution is part of what encouraged French commoners to overthrow the noble class that had misgoverned them for generations.
The Fourth of July celebrates American independence.
But it is also a great occasion to remember the French-American alliance and the importance of healthy international relations in an open world.
Ariel Bernier is a Charleston resident and graduate student at the University of Paris Diderot.