Tuesday, November 27, 2007


This Day in the History of French Resistance

On this day in 1942, the French Navy at Toulon scuttled nearly all its ships and submarines to keep them out of the hands of the Nazis, who had conquered France two and a half years earlier, but had allowed, for a while, the semblance of a French government, called the Vichy government. The Vichy French controlled the modern and deadly French Fleet, as long as they didn't leave port. There are few nations with a longer, more glorious history of destroying their equipment to keep it out of enemy hands than France.

I am also getting a little sick of hearing about the heroic French Resistance during WWII. Between the period June, 1940 to April, 1945, far more French men and women collaborated with and even joined up to fight along side the Germans than fought against them in the Resistance. Indeed, more people 'joined' the Resistance after May 8, 1945 than had joined it before then. Still, there were brave French men and women, mainly men, who suffered and died fighting the Bosch after their country's defeat and the ruining of the French Navy was in a certain light another such heroic act. Viva la France!
UPDATE: I got the date wrong. The end of open collaboration and the real start of nearly everyone being in the Resistance was in September, 1944, when we liberated Paris and then kicked the Germans out of the rest of France. My mistake.


If we're going to talk about the courageous actions of the French Navy in WWII, it would be uncharitable not to mention Mers el Kebir. The French fought a battle there to keep their fleet out of enemy hands. Of course, the battle was against their putative erstwhile allies, the British, but with the French you have to take your small points of light where you can find them.

Had the French not fought so earnestly on behalf of their German allies (at Mers el Kebir and during Torch) and had the French not been so diligent in their aid to the "Final Solution", I'd be more willing to credit them with the actions of a few (very few) members of the Resistance. As it is, I'm afraid that the graveyards in Poland and Germany and Morocco and Algeria filled with men killed by the French offer too much of a counterargument.

The French aren't bad allies, but that's because they aren't allies at all.
I sort of agree and your last line made me laugh. But I thought their 'fight' at Mers el Kebir consisted of them taking fire from the Brits without any effective counterfire. I am willing to be wrong on that.
Excerpts from the Wikipedia article on the battle:

"The French fleet was not prepared for battle and was anchored in a narrow harbour. The main armament of the Dunkerque and Strasbourg was grouped on their bows and could not immediately be brought to bear."

"The French eventually replied but ineffectively."

"After some thirty salvos, the French ships stopped firing. Meanwhile, the British force altered their course to avoid fire from the French coastal forts."

"That night, French bombers carried out a retaliatory raid against the British fleet at Gibraltar to no great effect."

As at the Battle of the Nile, the French fleet was caught at anchor and unready for a fight. They didn't put up much of a fight (I'm shocked, shocked), but they did what little they could to kill British sailors.
I know you righties seem to take an almost pornographic joy in trashing the French, but let's not forget that they were basically bled white during their WWI campaigns, and in WWII they obviously got their asses kicked, but let's also remember that the British Expeditionary Force essentially gave up on them after the first week of the campaign and the German Army was a force unlike anyone had ever seen.

Also, the French resistance was a pretty important factor in the Normandy Campaign. Many French citizens collaborated with the occupation, but I would be willing to bet that under the threat of death or torture that Americans would comply with the Nazis if we were in their shoes.

I know that the French did not support our "War of Iraqi Liberation" (based on the correct observation that the Iraqis did not have weapons of mass destruction), but the French have been fighting and winning a lot of wars for a hell of a long time.
I think it might be worthwhile to take a longer-term look at French actions. I'll start with the 30-Years war, largely because I know the history from that period forward reasonably well, but also because prior to that period France was so politically fragmented as to make comparisons less useful.

30-Years War - France begins the war as an ally of Spain and the Catholic German states. When it became apparent that there was advantage to be gained by switching sides, the French allied with the Protestants against their erstwhile allies.

Franco-Dutch War - Previous alliance with France was no protection when the French decided to take Dutch territory.

War of the Grand Alliance & War of the Spanish Succession - As should be expected, this was about opportunism. France tried again to grab Dutch territory and seated a Bourbon on the Spanish throne.

War of the Austrian Succession - France signed the Pragmatic Sanction, guaranteeing Austrian territorial integrity upon the death of Charles VI. Within two years, France had attacked Austria in an opportunistic attempt to grab territory.

7-Years War - The War of the Austrian Succession ended in 1748. By 1756, France had abandoned its previous alliance with Prussia, and allied with Austria to fight Prussia.

Revolutionary War/AWI - Studiedly neutral at the start (aid to the incipient US was illegal), the French saw the opportunity to discomfit their old enemy (England) and entered the war on the side of the US. By the end of the war, the French tried very hard to betray the US during the peace negotiations. (As a result, though fighting ended in 1781, the peace treaty wasn't signed until 1783.)

Quasi War - Though France had been a defacto ally of the US during much of the AWI, and though the US had been an ally of France during the French Revolution, by 1798, the French had begun capturing US merchant ships, which led to a two-year naval war between the two countries.

Napoleonic Wars - France vs. all of Europe (most of which had been allied with France at some point) except Spain. France (of course) betrayed Spain in the middle of the wars. (So much for the Bourbons.)

Franco-Prussian War - Characterized by extensive French incompetence, I don't actually know of any active French betrayals in this war. The lack of allies for France would have, of course, made betrayal difficult.

WWI - It's not clear which side had the moral advantage in this war, though of course the allies were the first to break the treaty on the use of poison gas. (The Germans were the first to use poison gas, but they used it within the treaty constraints.) The peace treaty, of course, was a disaster, and that disaster can be laid directly at the feet of France.

WWII - Previously discussed (at tedious length).

Cold War - France, being protected by default by other NATO forces, repudiated their military participation in the NATO treaty. Why bother to contribute when you can get someone else to defend your country without actually helping them? (And let's not even discuss Viet Nam.)

GWoT - Discussed at tedious length. Direct French abrogation of NATO treaty obligations has been rampant. (Oh, and the French believed that the Iraqis had WMD programs, just like the rest of the west. Their decision was based on short-term advantage, not superior intelligence.)

French faithlessness has not by any means been unique to the US/French relationship.
Thanks, Doug, excellent analysis, as usual. Anon, I'm not sure disdain of the French is more concentrated on the right than on the left, but if it is, it is because we right wingers apparently have clearer historical knowledge. As to how many Americans would have supported the Nazis under the same circumstances that existed in 1940-1944 France, difficult to prove or disprove. French people did not join or help the Gestapo or join the French SS Division because of a threat of death or torture. I'm sure there are weak people who support our mortal enemies now but you probably don't want to ask what political leanings they have, the answer might be painful to you.
You know what you would call French Resistance members now don't you? Insurgents if you are being nice. Terrorists if you being Republicans.
Indeed, they would be insurgents, though mostly not terrorists, since they were engaging military targets. And as illegal combatants (lacking recognizable signs of membership in a military force among other things) they were properly not subject to Geneva Convention and Hague Convention protections.

Note further that they did not expect such protections, nor did their allies expect them to be afforded such protections.
Good comment praguetwin..
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