I went to an interesting exhibit about the Liberation of Paris yesterday, and was somewhat surprised by who the City of Paris chose to depict as the bad guys: Us.
The city runs a neat little museum about the (rather old) history of Paris, which goes back to nearly 10,000 BC.
The museum, called the Carnavalet, is located in the historic Marais district, and currently is running an exhibit in honor of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris during World War II by French and American troops.
The name of the exhibit is “Paris liberé, Paris photographié, Paris exposé” (in English it’s “Paris freed, Paris photographed, Paris exhibited”), and it contains a number of pretty neat photographs, both professional and amateur, taken during the occupation, and then subsequent liberation, of Paris by the Nazis during the 1940s.
Paris was occupied by the Germans from June 22, 1940 to August 24, 1944.
As you might expect, even though the Americans and the French jointly liberated Paris, the Carnavalet’s exhibit was heavy on the French, and barely included a mention of the Americans until the very last room where I found this, below. Keep in mind that this is pretty much the only thing in the entire museum describing the American role in the Liberation of Paris:
Yes, the entire description of the US role in the Liberation of Paris is about the “irony” of how racist and criminal our soldiers (and citizens) were. And about how odd it is that the French fell in love with the culture of a bunch of racist criminals.
Now, here’s the thing. Is it accurate to point out that the US was racist, segregated its armed forces, and treated its black troops (and vets) badly? Yes it is accurate.
And is it accurate to point out that some American troops committed crimes on French soil? Again, yes it is.
But you know what else is accurate? The fact that during that same period, France was just as racist as the US in terms of its brutal treatment of its then-colony in Algeria. And by the end of the war, you didn’t see a chastened France, newly inspired by its victorious battle against a racist enemy, handing the Algerians their freedom. (And I suspect many French of Algerian origin still have doubts about their personal freedom even today.)
There’s no mention of any of that in the Carnavalet’s exhibit. Nothing about the “irony” of the French resistance — heck, of de Gaulle himself — fighting against Nazi “racism” while actively oppressing people of color in France’s own colonies.
During World War II North Africa was the battle ground for much of the European based war. With the invasion of France by Germany in 1942, the Allied forces were quick to take control of the colonies once controlled by the French. The Anglo-American occupation of North Africa began the start of modern day Algeria. During this time, the occupational forces (both the Allied and the Axis powers) began delivering messages and promises of a “new world for formerly subject[ed] peoples”. Promises of emancipation excited the Algerian people, as they would finally be able to form a sovereign nation. In December 1942, Ferhat Abbas drafted an Algerian Manifesto, and presented it to both the Allied and French authorities. This manifesto wanted recognition of an Algeria that was sovereign, and free of colonization. As a response, in 1943, French citizenship was given as an option to many North Africans. This, however, led to outrage as it was not enough to satisfy Algerians, and an uprising soon followed.
On 8 May 1945, during celebrations to mark the end of the World war, an unorganized rising occurred in Setif where 84 European settlers were killed. The French replied with brute force, suppressing the Algerian population, killing thousands upon thousands of Algerians. Opposition continued against the French, and the brute force used by the French as well continued. In total, estimates of the deaths range from 1,000 to 45,000 deaths, with many more wounded. Following the events of the past as the Setif Massacre, French rule was introduced again.
As any good student of propaganda knows, you can lie with the truth by simply being selective about what you share. In this case, the only portion of the exhibit devoted to the American role in the Liberation of Paris spent the entire time discussing our racism and criminality, while never mentioning the fact that France at the time had just as troubled a history when it came to embracing freedom for all (France’s Jews might have a few thoughts on the topic as well).
It’s unclear whether someone thought that this would be a neat twist on the usually staid descriptions of the Liberation, or whether the city of Paris has some issues with the US’ role in its own liberation (their comment about American culture drips with animus).
The inclusion of such inflammatory material in an exhibit that was not devoted to the historic irony of racism — while choosing to ignore the ironic “racism” of France’s own troops and its own citizens during that same period — struck me as biased, gratuitous, and inappropriate.
I’m going to close with a comment that a reader posted, below:
One of my favorite uncles died a few months ago, at age 89. He was from Alabama. He came out of the racist society. He also risked his life as an MP in Patton’s army to free the damn French from the Nazis. The third husband of one of my wife’s aunts died at 95 a few years ago. He was old enough in WWII he could not have been drafted. Instead, he volunteered, assuming his high level mechanical skills on vehicles would keep him off the front line. That went so well. He was dropped, in his bulldozer, off a landing craft on the second day of Normandy invasion, and spent three days cutting roads off the beaches so the troops could start moving in land. His recounting of those days to us, on a Memorial Day about a decade ago, still bring tears to my eyes as I remember his careful and calm accounting of those days in his life.
He still remembers the French farmer who gave him some eggs on the fifth or sixth day, when he finally was able to pause and rest. He scrambled them up and ate them with a tin of bacon he had smuggled in his bulldozer cabin. (It was enclosed with welded on steel plates, which protected him from snipers as he got from the landing craft to the beach.) “Des oeufs”, he told us. “The Eggs.” The only French words he learned, and remembered to his dying day.
I for one, on their behalf, and all the other uncles and my father who served in WWII to that very end, find this treatment of American soldiers by the French simply disgusting and unacceptable.
As a postscript, one of the things that really bothers me most is that this kind of anti-American stereotype is not the French. At least, not today’s France. Once upon a time, maybe. But not in the past 10+ years that I’ve been coming regularly to this country (my first visit was to study here for a year in 1983-84). I continue to be amazed at the generosity shown me by the French, especially in Paris. I have countless stories of small, insigificant gestures of kindness that make all the difference.
The woman the other day in the grocery store who let me go first because I had fewer purchases than her.
The grocery check out lady who remembers me, year after year, and always grabs a plastic bag, opens it, and starts filling it with my groceries, because she remembers what a hard time I always have opening the bags (and I told her once that I kept having a hard time, juggling filling the bag with getting out my money, because in America the grocery clerk usually fills the bag for us — so every year when she spots me, she fills my bag for me, something they just don’t do here).
The baker around the corner who, upon my telling him that I was American, I love to cook, and was fascinated watching their baguette making which was taking place in plain view, invited me downstairs to his kitchen, gave me a grand tour, then proceeded to demonstrate for me how to make a particular French pastry, even though this was the middle of the afternoon and he only bakes these things in the morning. (Oh, he also handed me a free pastry on my way out — another thing they just don’t do.)
The ER doctor who had seen me two weeks before when I had my retinal detachment while in Paris, and who noticed that my name was on the list for surgery that day, came over and found me in the area just outside the operating room, scared to death, basically blind (they had taken my glasses for the surgery, so I couldn’t see), laying on a gurney alone in a foreign country, and who touched my arm, introduced himself, and said he just wanted to say hi and make sure I was okay.
I could go on.
That’s why this story so bothers me. Not because the French are rude. But because the French aren’t rude at all.