Forty-three years after Charles de Gaulle took France out of NATO’s military command structure, Nicolas Sarkozy — perhaps the French Republic’s most pro-American president ever — has returned to the fold. Any mention of France and the military in a single sentence is sure to raise hackles about supposed “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” Who can forget all the bad jokes heard back in 2003 about the supposed French propensity to give up before even beginning to fight? I too was highly critical of the role France played in the lead-up to the Iraq War, but not because I ever questioned the fighting mettle of French soldiers. In the years since, I think the French bashing has gone too far. It is as unfair as it is unhelpful.
Why unfair? Because France, although it has lost more than its share of wars, actually has a proud military heritage stretching back to the days of Napoleon, Louis XIV, and beyond. Does anyone recall that, notwithstanding its defeats at Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356), France actually defeated England in the Hundred Years’ War? Or that, notwithstanding its quick collapse in the spring of 1940, France lost over 100,000 men resisting the Nazi invasion? In the immediate post-war years France was booted out of Vietnam and Algeria after bitter conflicts but it was not for want of combat skill and élan among its troops. France’s feared paras went too far in using torture to win the Battle of Algiers, but their desire to win and their willingness to suffer and inflict casualties was not in question.
Nor should it be today. France maintains perhaps the most formidable military in Europe; its only rival is the United Kingdom. And, along with the UK, France is one of the few European nations still willing to send its forces in harm’s way, as it has repeatedly demonstrated in Africa over the years. France is now proving the point anew in Afghanistan, where it has sent roughly 2,000 troops not bound by any of the restrictive caveats hobbling the combat effectiveness of most NATO contingents. The French, along with the Poles, are even happy to serve under American command in eastern Afghanistan. American officers I met on a recent visit to Afghanistan spoke highly of the professionalism of their French counterparts. The French thus stand in stark contrast to, among others, the Italians, who are said to pay the Taliban instead of attack them.
NATO will continue to be an unwieldy alliance with or without France but I, for one, am glad to see the soldats of France being given a greater opportunity to serve alongside the soldiers of America in the common defense of liberté.