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What about the French, their diplomacy, their diplomats, their Government’s attitudes toward the United States? American Diplomacy is pleased to publish this ground breaking study of French diplomacy based on interviews* with American diplomats going back fifty years. — Assoc. Ed.

The Nature of French Diplomacy: Reflections of American Diplomats

by Dayton S. Mak

Not since the Suez crisis in 1956 have relations between the United States and France been so strained. Then it was we who angered the French by thwarting their military plans to regain ownership and control of the Suez Canal from Egypt’s Nasser. Today, it is we who are angry with France for its turnabout and refusal to support our war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. In view of this French behavior, along with the growing anti-American feeling in France, can we still consider France a trustworthy friend and ally? As we will be working with the French daily on a myriad of subjects in many places throughout the world, it behooves us to prepare ourselves to anticipate likely French behavior in future dealings and thus minimize unpleasant surprises arising from misunderstanding and miscalculations

The questions that many of us are asking these days are “Why are the French so anti-American? Have they forgotten the sacrifices our nation made over the past century to restore their freedom?  Are we no longer the allies that we have been since the first days of our existence as an independent nation? If France does consider itself an ally of the United States, why are the French consistently confrontational and difficult in their relationship with us?

To help us answer these questions we have at our disposal a quantity of material describing the interaction of American diplomats with French diplomats and officials in France and elsewhere over the past fifty years. This material is contained in the collection of over fifteen hundred oral histories of retired American diplomats, compiled by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) in the Washington, D.C. area. The candid comments of the American officials in this study relating their experiences in dealing with French officialdom reveal much about the general nature and special characteristics of French diplomacy as it pertains to the U.S.-French official relationship. These observations help identify those elements of French behavior that cause us difficulty in our relationship and help explain the underlying reasons for this behavior.

This study is comprised of five sections: FRENCH OFFICIALS describes the background and quality of French government officials as viewed by their American colleagues: THE VICHY ERA recounts French behavior during the World War II period: THE DIFFICULT FRENCH relates difficult and sometimes peculiar encounters with French diplomats and government officials: FRENCH SUSPICIONS concerns French perception of American inroads into French preserves; and CONCLUSIONS summaries the general observations of the officers interviewed  as to the nature and the performance of French diplomats and other officials in their conduct of official relations with the United States over the past half century.

While conducting official business with the French can be troublesome and sometimes exasperating, our American diplomats have great praise for the skill and superior quality of their French colleagues. These French officials are consistently described as first class, highly trained, intelligent public servants, well versed in French policy and capable of expressing it eloquently.  While they have little flexibility in negotiations and can be expected to follow instructions meticulously, they are marvelously adroit in adapting quickly to any sudden change or reversal of policy dictated by higher authority.

The French diplomat and senior administrator is one of France’s elite government officials, a carefully selected, highly trained graduate of a first rate French university, often l’école nationale d’administration, a prestigious institution whose graduates dominate the French administrative hierarchy. Unlike the United States where ambassadors and other high officials are often chosen from the private sector, the French rarely look outside this special cadre for their top administrators and diplomats. American diplomats have commented on the excellent qualities of French diplomats and officials, which make them formidable adversaries.  Following are comments of several officers who dealt extensively with French officials in the course of their careers in France and elsewhere.  

Thomas W. Fina, Economic Officer in Paris, 1958-1960-

“The French, the French Government, were always difficult from our point of view. French officers, who were seconded to the European communities, or who were direct employees of the European communities, were a different kettle of fish.  The French had, and may still have, the most able, best prepared cadre of civil servants of any of the European countries, as far as I could see, very possibly including the United States. French civil servants and diplomats were of the first order, well educated, sophisticated, with a great sense of the state, which I think is something that often is lacking in American diplomats, in American presidents, but not so in the case of French civil servants….

That is, a sense of the responsibility of the individual for the collectivity of the state, not as seen from the point of view of one political party or another, but the state as the collectivity of Frenchmen, or Americans, which has a stature that overarches the individual political parties and the political institutions. A sense that one has a loyalty to the community that one represents, and that requires comportment of a certain dignity. The state is important. It has not only a juridical existence, but it has a philosophical and ideological existence as well, which you as, as a statesman, or a politician to some degree represent.

So they were very difficult, very effective people if you were in conflict. They were very effective. So the French, in France, are two different things, and sometimes they were our best friends, and sometimes they were the people we most regretted.”

Michael E. Ely was posted in Paris in a number of capacities including Economic Minister during the period 1959-1984. “France was and remains an intensely elitist society. And the peak of the elite you find in the government, and the peak of the government elite you find in the inspecteurs des finance, and I found myself running into these people everywhere I went. The inspecteur des finances is a super-technocrat, protected, powerful, privileged, overworked, brilliant, and usually quite condescending. Learning to deal with these people was one of the most useful things I acquired.”

His estimation of his French colleagues continues: “It was a revelation of sorts dealing with these people, because they were very good and really smart. They also have an institutional sense that is totally different from anything that we do. And a relatively small number of people working, very, very hard, do the work of a much larger number of people in American administrations. We have a resolutely non-elitist view of government service, where we put in political appointees clear down to the assistant secretary level. The French wouldn’t dream of that. They have their corps of loyal, protected, and powerful civil servants, who are put through a series of cream separators, weeded out, and then they start at the top and work up.  A totally different system that makes the American system seem populist and top-heavy in comparison.

Over the years, looking back, I find that the systems reflect the cultures.  I don’t think we could operate with the French system.  I think they might do a little better if they had something a little closer to ours, but that’s an observation that I can’t prove.”

Warren Zimmermann, Political Counselor, Paris, 1977-1980.

“French politicians are the most brilliant speakers I have ever heard anywhere in my life, almost never speaking with notes. They can talk half an hour, an hour, two hours brilliantly developing one point after another in perfect logical progression.

“Certainly the French manner of argument appears logical, and I think that is why it is called Cartesian. You build up from a basis and you draw one conclusion and that leads to another conclusion. This is all fine if the basis from which you build is correct. If the basis from which you build is wrong, all the logic in the world is not going to make it right. That often happens with the French.”

Alan G. James, Political Counselor in Paris, 1963-1968-

“On a personal level I did not find them (French officials) at all difficult. However, I found Gaullism uncongenial politically, and thought it much harder to represent U.S. interests, present U.S. positions to the French than was the case during my subsequent posting in London, where I dealt with officials more attuned to the United States. As Political/Military Counselor I dealt mainly with two or three officers at Quai–. I found these men intelligent, well informed and precise. The Office Director, in particular, exemplified the exquisitely trained French bureaucratic elite. Quai officials were always cordial to me. They spoke good English but insisted, as you can imagine, that official business be conducted exclusively in French.”

Richard B. Finn, Political Officer in Paris, 1959-1963-

“I found with the Quai d’Orsay people, if you wanted something from them you worked for it. You had to keep pressing them to do it…. You earned your salt if you got deals out of a French diplomat. But the overall atmosphere was always quite good.”

Anthony Geber, Political officer, NATO, Paris, 1961-1967-

“The French were absolutely magnificent. They were self-assured, they could engage in discussions expressing their personal views, they didn’t have to have detailed instructions, etc.”

Again,” The French delegation was headed by Andre deLattre, an Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Finance and an inspecteur des finances, that fabulous breed of French civil servants, who, if they survived their elite and rigorous training, excelled among their peers. M. deLattre made a brilliant presentation of the French aid program, anticipating all critical questions, explaining as best he could why things were as they were, and promising improvements in the future, and all in the most beautiful and articulate French.”

Raymond C. Ewing, U.S. Rep., International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, 1962-1964-

“We had a good, cordial relationship with the French in Vienna.  EURATOM was already in existence. However, in many ways, I think that the French played a more independent role as far as the European partners were concerned–as much with them as with us. We weren’t the only ones for whom the French caused some difficulty.  They were very talented, very able, very serious on the IAEA, as I recall.”

Henry J. Kellermann was in Germany during the years 1949-1952 dealing with the cultural affairs program. He comments on French participation in the program:

“The French were doing a number of things that were different. First of all, they catered to the intellectuals, and to a high-brow middle class taste. They sent artists, philosophers and authors into Germany at an early stage. They had Andre Gide come over to give lectures. They set up in Mainz an elegant academy branch for the learned members of German society, which never got going. I still see that marvelous room they had planned to use for conferences, beautiful high-backed chairs, and nobody sitting in them except us, the visitors.”          

Gordon Brown, Economic Officer in Paris, 1973.

“They (French Foreign Ministry and others) are very professional.  These people are all trained in professional schools, the upper level bureaucrats, and the ones I was dealing with were quite often infinitely better versed on their portfolio than I was. I was learning about how they administered their companies, how they administered their foreign policy, how they manipulated oil contracts, how they achieved preferential deals in the Middle East. These are all things which they did within their bureaucracy, with a non-prying press, and with a great deal of old buddy relationships between themselves in the various ministries and the senior members of the companies…I found them to be exceptionally good, exceptionally difficult to get information out of, and they defended their interests extremely well. It was very frustrating because they were doing things that we were clearly not in favor of, but they weren’t exactly telling us what they were doing, and the French press does not search very hard to find information which is embarrassing to the French government.”

The state of relations between our country and France prior to World War II is a matter of speculation insofar as this study is concerned given the lack of any Oral Histories in ADST,s collection covering that period .  One might, nevertheless, conjecture that given the general status of France as a major European power with impressive armed forces and a collection of colonies throughout the world, France was not overly concerned over the growing strength of the United States as competitor. We assume, consequently, that Americans as individuals and the United States as a nation were accepted and tolerated but were not the objects of envy or resentment on the part of the major European powers. Relations were friendly, although there is some evidence that the United States, as an English-speaking nation, shared to some extent the persistent anti-British sentiment that the French are said to feel. A hint of this bias appears in the histories reviewed here.

Following are observations of six American diplomats, four of whom were serving at US missions in France during world war II, and a fifth diplomat, was French Desk Officer at the State Department at that time.

Douglas MacArthur II: Assigned to SHAPE Headquarters towards the end of the war.

“In the Allied Forces, the French Army was included in the Allied forces under the overall command of General Eisenhower.  The advance lead by a French general was triggered to kick off–I think this was in April of ’44, at 5:00 in the morning or something like that. There had been heavy preparation before, artillery barrages and things of that kind; then, to the consternation of the commander our forces of the Army group of which the French Army was a part, the French Army, I believe it was the French Ninth Army, instead of advancing in the direction of the line of battle as indicated in the plans, marched right across the front–to grab Stuttgart and Hume. In other words, it advanced at a 90 degree angle, directly across the front of the advancing Americans. We either had the choice of shooting our way through the French or holding up the advance. We held up the advance for 36 hours. This created a real crisis. The answer was that General de Gaulle had given orders to the French commander, who so informed our Army group commander, to take these places. This was part of his plan to move into this part of Germany so that France would have a larger zone of occupation than it might otherwise have had.  This did nothing, of course, to make our government any happier with General de Gaulle.”

Constance Ray Harvey was American Vice Consul in Lyon from 1941 to 1942. She was subsequently interned at Lourdes, then in Baden-Baden before being repatriated to the United States.

“I think there’s a great deal of anti-British feeling still in France. There was always a feeling of friendliness, in general, for the Americans. The Americans were not just Anglo-Saxons to them, they were people with whom they’d been involved in our revolution and then we’d taken on theirs and so forth. They remembered that, and they remembered us as friends. People were divided about the Vichy Government. We couldn’t help but see both kinds in a way; people make little waves. They didn’t dare talk too openly because they never knew when the Gestapo would arrive and scoop them up. We had Gestapo coming into the office constantly. We were very careful not to find out too closely who came into the office.”  Later she remarks, “We Americans were not frequented by the people who were anti Anglo-Saxon, so to speak. We knew that they existed, and we knew we had to be careful about this, that and the other, but there were people who were really good friends. You had to know who in a family was pro-Vichy, and who was against it.  You couldn’t trust anyone just because he was related to or had a certain position or was the brother or son of somebody.  You had to know each individual well, and you had to be very careful what you said.”

Ms. Harvey refers to the humiliation of the French over their defeat at the hands of the Germans and their resentment of the British, who had not been defeated:

“World War I was a terrible, murderous war, but at that time the country wasn’t overrun, practically overnight as it was in 1940, and in such a short time, a complete collapse.  This was really very, very shocking to the French. They weren’t prepared for that psychologically… ‘to see men running.’ I think a great many of them just had to have a father figure to hang onto psychologically, and the general (de Gaulle) was there. That, in a sense explains the power of de Gaulle later.”

Harold Kaplan: USIS officer in Paris from 1945 to 1950 and again from 1952 to 1957 describes his difficulties with getting transmitters installed in North Africa after the U.S. landings there.

“We had a lot of trouble. We had great, daily troubles; even once they had officially come over to our side, even before de Gaulle arrived (in August). De Gaulle was always very sticky to deal with, but even before he arrived we had difficulties. I’m talking about the period–we landed in November, you recall–and there’s the period before August of the next year in which we were dealing with the Vichy French essentially, but who had come over to our side.  They remained very independent and frequently politically very opposed to a lot of our points of view, so we had a constant problem with them.”

James Cowles Hart Bonbright was French Desk Officer in the State Department from 1942 until 1949.

“The big problem at the time with the French and a long time after the war was our relations with de Gaulle and his Free French.  We got off on a very bad start. This was before my time. I think it was around Christmas, 1941. Without consulting us, General de Gaulle ordered an admiral, who was loyal to him, to take the two French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, two ratty little places off the coast of Newfoundland, of no importance except they’d been a thorn in our side all through the Prohibition era, a haven for jolly boating.  This infuriated FDR and Mr. Hull, on reflection, perhaps a little bit more than it should have, but it did, and caused Mr. Hull, I think, to refer to the takeover as by a group of ‘so-called’ Free French.  That, really, we never recovered from.”

The Free French were also a problem for the United States and Britain in London. Fundamentally, too, the French group that was allowed to set up business in London was just too irresponsible.  They were like a sieve. We all found, the British, too by bitter experience, that you couldn’t pass anything of a confidential nature to the French in London that didn’t go back to Vichy and eventually to the Germans. Any military planning was out; you just couldn’t do it. That’s really, I think, why de Gaulle was not drawn into any of the planning for the invasion. I think maybe he didn’t even know about it until the boats were already on the way.  Anyway, it was last minute. They were taking no chances, and they had to do this, no question about it.  I’ve often wondered, and many people have, if things might have been better after the war if we had treated de Gaulle differently… We did all sorts of things for him, like letting French troops lead the way into Paris at the time of the liberation, when they had had nothing to do with liberating Paris whatsoever.”

He comments further on the difficulties with de Gaulle: “Of course, the French in the town, the underground, was not without its importance in the liberation and turnover.  Then at times de Gaulle would go right against direct orders and move his troops sometimes right in front of where we were going, things of that sort, just for political reasons.– Always for the grandeur of France. I think this attitude was important in helping to maintain French morale after the disaster — but I think he overdid it. I think maybe he got the French to feel that they were stronger than they really were. Anyway, we had trouble with him always to the day he died.”

Paul F. DuVivier spent many years at Foreign Service posts in France, 1942 in Marseilles, 1958-1961 in Paris, 1961-1962 in Bordeaux and 1962-1965 at Nice/Monaco. Here he describes the strong feelings in France against Charles de Gaulle when he “fled” France at the beginning of the war.

“De Gaulle was largely discredited in France as a traitor at that time and quite ignored. This is hard for Americans to appreciate… de Gaulle was a renegade in their eyes. He had run out of his country. He’d gotten on board the airplane of General Spears, the British military attaché in Paris, and he’d fled to London. They didn’t listen to his broadcasts, and he was a has-been.”

In 1942 things were going badly for us in the Far East, and we were just beginning to build up in Europe. DuVivier comments on how he was viewed by the French Resistance at the time. “[T]hey knew we were coming, they knew that we would ‘sweep out’ the Germans, they had utter contempt for the Germans, and their patriotism was extraordinary, the daring things they did. — [T]here were cases of people who were persecuted and showed extreme courage. But there was enthusiasm. I never felt afraid, I never worried about where I would get my food, and I felt a certain exhilaration in being able to do something for my country.”

Frederick W. Flott was Consular and Political Officer in Paris 1947-1952 and has these comments regarding French views of the role of the Resistance in WWII.

 “The French government was very generous about overstating, if anything, the importance of the Resistance movement, partly because it got France off the hook of having been so largely collaborationist.  The French political scene during then was pretty much collaborationist. The extent to which this was the case is still coming out in the latest writings on the subject.  So the best way to expunge some of that from the record was to talk about how magnificent the Resistance had been”


Our American diplomats have found working with the French often frustrating and difficult. The attitude of French officials is often considered by Americans to be arrogant, intolerant, stubborn and sometimes distinctly unfriendly. They can, at other times be friendly, helpful and cooperative. While one can speculate as to the underlying reasons behind French behavior, throughout these oral histories of American diplomats there runs a distinct sense that the French are “difficult” to deal with and that they appear to have distinct anti-American sentiments, particularly within the French government.

General Charles de Gaulle in many ways personified the confrontational nature of France’s relations with the United States. De Gaulle had his special view of the important role that France should play in world affairs and this often brought him in direct conflict with the actions and policies of this newly powerful United States of America, whose growing power in Europe he especially deplored.

De Gaulle’s attitude and general political philosophy regarding the United States appears throughout the following reports of American diplomats in their relations with French officials.

John Irwin II, Ambassador to France, 1973-1974.

“The de Gaulle government was almost fanatical in its desire to be independent, particularly to be seen in Europe and the Soviet Union as not a dependent of the United States. It had a combined view of the United States, or rather a schizophrenic view almost. On one hand it had a certain resentment against the United States in theory, not in any particular issue, but just the concept of our being too powerful in Europe—.”

William Tyler, Ambassador with extensive official and unofficial experience with the French over the years.

“In attacking de Gaulle, you appear to many Frenchmen to be justifying the suspicions which de Gaulle airs about the ultimate intention of the United States, to take over Europe as a great commercial outlet for exports. By pushing for an integrated Europe, you make many people who are not supportive of de Gaulle feel, to some extent, that de Gaulle is standing up for something which they would wish him to stand up for, and not appear to be going along with something which would economically, perhaps, reduce Europe to the role of an inferior partner of the United States and lose control to a great extent of European economic and political interests.”

He later reports comments made by General de Gaulle to Secretary of State Dean Rusk in 1964. “‘One thing you have to understand, Monsieur le Ministre, is that the French Republic and the troops of the French Republic will fight to the end for the common cause, which is certainly the cause of freedom and democracy in the world, alongside of America, etc., but French troops will only die defending their own soil and under French command’.

The idea of a French general receiving orders, as you would conceive it, from an American or any other foreign general was intolerable.”

Ronald Spiers, Political/military officer, State Dept., 1963-1966.

“We might have offered the job of SACEUR to the French.  But de Gaulle was very embittered, first by the defeat of the French troops, then by the treatment he thought he got from Churchill and Roosevelt, and then by his perception that NATO was an incurably Anglo-Saxon organization, controlled by the Americans and the British, and responsive to the Americans and the British….He was primarily interested in the restoration of French pride by establishing a purely French identity. I guess that the French withdrawal was probably inevitable.”

George Ball, Under Secretary of State, saw de Gaulle in 1965.

“I think he (de Gaulle) was playing, as he always did, a very pecuniary game, which was designed for the aggrandizement of French interests, in prestige terms, in terms of regaining a position of some authority in that part of the world… France was not a power that was equal to the United States. It was at best a second-rate power.”

Dean Rusk, Secretary of State.

“It was General de Gaulle who seemed to put this in a bilateral-U.S. context. As a matter of fact from the U.S. point of view, France was a minority of one in the Committee of Ten. France wasn’t playing in the general community effort to find answers to these monetary problems. And so President Johnson tried to avoid having this appear as simply a U.S.-France problem, whereas President de Gaulle wanted to make it into a U.S.-French problem”.

 Michael Ely, Treasury Officer, Paris 1959-1962
“… De Gaulle, by this time, was trying to bring down the Anglo-Saxons. He had gotten himself into a psychological, moral set by which he was locked in combat with us for, not domination of Europe, that’s too simple, but to reduce American influence, particularly to reduce American predominance in Europe. American presence was desirable only up to a certain point. Beyond that, it became inimical to French interests.”

He comments on Anti-Americanism in France at that time.

“The entire Sorbonne, all the universities, were full of Marxists, all of whom had a dislike and contempt for the United States and all it stood for. Even though they might have had some nice personal feelings on the side, institutionally they were anti-American. It was in 1964 that Michel Debre, then prime minister, managed to make a speech celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Normandy landing without mentioning the United States, which took quite a bit of acrobatics. Well, he was a firm Gaullist, and the Gaullist view was that the Free French had won the war; they liberated Paris, and the Americans had come in afterwards, which was total distortion.”

“French society was still riven by the very factors — who did what during the occupation? Nobody was telling the truth. It was a society very much like the recent society in the Soviet Union, based on lies. The Communists said that they had started the resistance and won the war. De Gaulle said no, no, the Free French had won the war. And in point of fact, neither did. The Allied Forces, primarily American, won the war. But nobody was going to admit this.”

“While the Americans were personally well treated and well regarded, as a country the United States was very unpopular. The Atlanticists were purged by de Gaulle, which meant that the friends of the United States were taken out of the Foreign Ministry, even out of the government. On the right, Americans were unpopular because of our open-democracy populism, open culture, and prosperity. And sooner or later, whenever you were talking to a prominent French person, someone would start mentioning the almighty dollar.  The almighty dollar.”

Warren Zimmermann, Political Counselor, Paris, 1977-1980.

“It’s a love-hate relationship. The French, don’t forget, are our oldest allies. They sent us Lafayette and helped George Washington. We have never fought a war with the French, ever.”

“(Ambassador) Hartman had a very good way of dealing with the French. He understood that the U.S.- French relationship is traditionally a conflicted relationship, and to some degree has to be because to a degree French policy in the world is formulated on the assumption that the United States is an adversary and has to be treated as an adversary….It was a balancing act all the time…It involves not making an enemy of the French. It also involves not falling for their nationalistic line too heavily.”

“The French are Latins after all, and there is a kind of a tendency, I think, in Latin countries to believe that there is an answer for everything. Nothing is by chance, and if something happens, it is because somebody willed it to happen. If nobody comes forward to say they will it to happen, then it is a plot.”

“France was often very strong on human rights, but France was not a team player and didn’t enjoy working things out, particularly within NATO…So the French were sometimes with us, sometimes very eloquently with us, and sometimes they weren’t.  We could never be quite sure.”

Perry Steiglitz. In Strasbourg with USIS during the de Gaulle period.

“The French television was strongly slanted in an anti-American way. Every night there would be another anti-American story telecast. I remember at one point calling on the publisher of one of the two newspapers in Strasbourg. During the course of our conversation I asked how much anti-Americanism there was in the region.  He said “Virtually none.” I queried, “How does that happen? He replied, “Here everyone watches German television”.

Margaret Tutwiler, Spokesperson, Department of State, 1990’s.

“The French were very difficult, especially on Secretary of State Baker in multilateral meetings and on some very contentious issues. But, I will also say in the buildup to the Gulf War, that the last person we needed was President Mitterand, to get his support. It was very critical at that time that France in the person of Mitterand say ‘yes, we will be there’. Secretary Baker met with Mitterand in a very small meeting in Mitterand’s office….Baker did his brief from President Bush and Mitterand did his little speech. He had one sentence in there in the translation, which basically said, ‘I’m there’. His efforts had extended over months. I remember the relief of Secretary Baker and the U.S. delegation. Mitterand did the right thing. He had been saying, ‘give peace a chance’ and all the other stuff, but when it got to crunch time he was there. Yes, they were difficult, but Baker and Roland Dumas, who was the foreign minister at the time, got along fine.  They would definitely have disagreements, and I can’t remember what they were. But on really, really important things, yes, the French were there.”

Herman J. Cohen: Consular Officer, Paris, 1955-1958.

“I found them (the French) kind of resentful of the United States for a couple of reasons. One is that we hadn’t suffered so much through the war, and they were still recovering. Secondly, it was the Marshall Plan days, and we were really pushing them too much, telling them what to do, taking charge of some of their economic ministries. They really resented this, because they needed our money and yet they didn’t like all the advice we were giving them.  Also we had the Algerian problem.”

C. Douglas Dillon: Ambassador to France in the 1950’s.

 “The French, as one knows, don’t like to be told what to do. Most people don’t. The French react a little more violently to someone’s telling them publicly what to do, and they’re perfectly capable of, even if they want to do something, changing it and doing the opposite if someone tells them they should do it. So I think that it probably figures in with that, and I think Dulles understood that about the French.”

Douglas MacArthur II.

“Our role was to encourage, to the extent possible, stability in the French political system; but if you know the French as I know them, it’s very difficult for a foreigner to offer suggestions to a Frenchman about what he might or might not be doing, without creating a very, very considerable backlash.”

Michael Newlin; NATO, 1963, Paris and Brussels

“Well, the French, of course went their own way. There was really very little that we could do. I guess we watched with restrained amusement when critics asked, ‘Who is your enemy? Why are you building this?’ de Gaulle didn’t want to say, of course, ‘I’m building it just out of national pride.’ He said, ‘It will be aimed a tout azimuths.’ I said to my French colleagues, I hope for your sake that you don’t accidentally fire one of those things towards the United States.’ “

President de Gaulle was not invariably anti-American and unfriendly. He was supportive of the United States at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he showed himself to be a friend on the occasion of the funeral of President Kennedy.

Wells Stabler was Political Officer in Paris at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“The news coming out of Washington was increasingly threatening in terms of what seem to be building up. The Embassy’s role in this at that point became one of being sure that the French were aware of what actually was happening. Of course, this type of situation was handled, obviously, at the very top level, and beyond the news reports coming out of what was happening, the recognition in Washington was that it was important that we bring all our allies on board and make them aware of actually what U-2 pictures showed. …Ambassador Bohlen accompanied Dean Acheson on the call on de Gaulle. The object behind this was, again, as I say, to take to de Gaulle the evidence we had. My recollection is that he rather pushed the evidence aside and said that we could be sure that France will stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States in a war situation. I think this was a very important aspect of the US-French relationship, to know that in spite of all his varied differences with us in many other areas of the world on how things were being done, the idea of US hegemony and the like, which was part of the reason they left NATO, on major questions of war and peace the French remained our loyal ally. I don’t think that anybody had any doubt that what de Gaulle said was what he meant.  That was one of the very important milestones in the French-American relations.”

Subsequently, Stabler says: “Also, de Gaulle’s personal participation in the Memorial Service in Paris for (President) Kennedy, and I believe he also came to the United States for the funeral.  So in spite of all these major political problems with the French, the basic alliance, this sort of love/hate relationship that has existed between the United States and France was reconfirmed.”  Stabler adds: “I think on the whole that you would say that the French political class, in any event, was clearly behind us and were supportive in this particular situation. I am not sure, now that I look back on it, to what extent the French people were really aware of the gravity of the situation.”

(From various oral histories)

“The French tended not to side with anybody. They had their own attitudes and were going to pursue them, and it didn’t much matter what anyone else thought or said.”

“The problem really was in trying to bring the French along into something that seemed reasonable. That proved impossible many times. We didn’t have any veto power in this, so you couldn’t overrule the French. They got their way for more destruction (in Germany) than we would have thought wise.”

“The French were a pain in the neck. The French Mission was in the same building that we were, and there was remarkably little interaction. With the Brits, we always had a very good relationship.”

“There was no majority voting at all. Everything was done by consensus. The French were more than happy to stand up and say ‘no’. It didn’t bother them in the least.”

“The Europeans were unquestionably difficult….the Germans were the next most amenable Europeans, although on occasion they could be troublesome as were the Japanese; the Italians would usually side with us. But the French were always difficult.”

“The French were always the most difficult and most importunate in the (European) Community.”

“The final vote was unanimous except that of the French representative, who cast a ‘no position’ vote.”

“In the Security Council, drafts of resolutions on Somalia written in the State Department were pushed through by representatives of our mission in New York, usually working behind the scenes and not disposed or authorized to accommodate, even in minor ways, the views of others, particularly those of our allies whose support, except for the French, we seemed to take for granted. French diplomacy reflects a singular passion for being alone of its kind.”

“The British and U.S. Combined Chiefs of Staff had ceased to exist after the war, but the British kept a large military mission in Washington with offices in the Pentagon. Nothing could convince the French that the Combined Chiefs setup was not still secretly in existence, and that the British and we together were discussing worldwide strategy. The British were, in fact, closer to our military than anyone else, but there was definitely nothing formal about it. The French insisted that the proposed Military Committee, on which all the Parties could be represented, be supplemented, and in fact, dominated by an Anglo-French-American Standing Group, at Chiefs of Staff level. Nobody else liked the idea, least of all the smaller European nations, but the French made such a row over it that the rest of us eventually agreed.”

“…[T]he new Secretary of Agriculture, decided to go to Europe fairly early in the game to argue with them about this and took me along. Partly at my recommendation, he went to Paris first because on these kinds of issues, the French were always the most difficult and stubborn.”

“The relationship between the French government and the U.S. government was one of very hard feelings. We were more interested in what French intelligence was up to than we were in Soviet intelligence in terms of what was going on at the time.”

“The French really have the habit of doing whatever they have to do to get a sale, regardless of ethics.”

“I learned that the French are very difficult businessmen and require constant monitoring.”

“…[A]nd then of course the next step was to bring in the French if possible, and the Chinese, in  that order, because they too were nuclear powers, and we had to keep them in the first rank of consultation. Then, of course, after that the Germans and the Japanese. But the British were always trusted allies, and the French when they wanted to be. Of course the French position in virtually all arms control negotiations, with the possible exception of the Limited Test Ban, has been ‘You’ll have to convince me before I’m going to join this.’ And they’ve been rather late in coming aboard most arms controls. I think not because they oppose them in principle but just because the French are cynical realists who don’t want to get into an agreement that rules out something that will ultimately be used anyway and will destroy the treaties. They want to be sure that it’s something that is really going to happen before they sign it.”

During the years following World War II France found itself stripped of all but a few minor overseas possessions. This was a loss, which France could not easily accept. Its great fear was that the United States would move in to replace France there politically, economically and culturally. The following illustrate French sensitivities on the issue:

Douglas MacArthur II-

“Knowing, as the President of our government did, of the French sensibilities about being replaced in the French colonies, which the German propaganda had been spreading assiduously throughout France from the moment France fell, to divide them from the British, saying that the British and later the Americans wanted to take over all French colonies after the war. Knowing this, my instructions included saying to General Weygand that the President wanted him to know that the United States intends to see to it that the integrity of France and her empire is respected after the war, and that the French possessions in North Africa would remain in French hands. The United States had no desire to replace France nor to see the British or supporters of de Gaulle take over that area, knowing that Weygand, parenthetically, did not appreciate General de Gaulle too much.”

Robert Oakley, Economic Officer, Ivory Coast. 1963-1965-

“The French felt that the Ivory Coast was their province; that caused many tensions between us. We took a more liberal approach, particularly in economic development, which by its very nature was bound to make the new country more and more independent of France. So we always had a struggle with the French. It was just one more area of continuing French-U.S. tensions that have always existed and are still with us today.”

Paul Duvier, served in several capacities in France from 1942 to 1965. Here he discusses resistance to U.S. inroads in the commercial markets.

“It was a big problem in Paris but not much in the provinces.  The equivalent of the National Association of Manufacturers and all mayors were very helpful at the beginning.  Then after two years, they wrote and published a series of articles stressing US trade barriers to French exports. We got them to vet their draft articles with us before they published, but they were quite bitter on our agricultural and FDA regulations as well as tariff classifications which you know are very rigid over here, the Buy America Act and definitions of Camembert cheese –and selling wines in France called Champagne, Chablis or Burgundy–they were bitter about our success in making good wines. Many sarcastic remarks were made, and it was uphill.”

Alan W. Lukens Served in Paris with NATO, 1956-1960-

“The French were very suspicious, but you had different gradations. One of the things I did in my job, was to try to persuade some of the French that basically we were not going to supplant them, that it was in their interests to have an American presence in those countries and not to be so worried about it. I think we made some progress with the French diplomats and the French officials. There was much less progress, and it’s still a problem, with the French commercial sector. They didn’t want anyone coming in. They had complexes, they were very, very jealous of anybody coming in and try to break up this good arrangement that they had, and still have in many places.”

Michael E.C. Ely, Paris, 1959-1962-

“The French have been down there (in Africa) for X years. The French looked on Africa back in the ’30s as their strategic reserve for the Second World Was. They’d put investments in there to grow cotton, to kind of raise rubber, rice, become self-sufficient. The colonial mentality is still alive. They put a lot more into Africa than the British did, in terms of education and infrastructure and all. It hasn’t paid very well.  And now the area’s becoming independent. And there’s a lot if sensitivity about it. Be careful of the French; don’t consider them your friends.”

“…[P]art of the French deep suspicion of Americans both replacing the French with our economic and financial power and making Africa part of the anti-Communist battlefield, reflecting the way that the United States tended to see the world; it’s us and our allies versus the Soviet Union, so let’s get in there before the Russians do.”

“The French were intensely suspicious of our role in Algeria. They were intensely ambivalent about what we did in Indochina. The French had dreams of 20 years before, when France was considered the most powerful nation in the world. That was nearly gone. It was an illusion, but the French still had it.”

Walter J. Silva, Consul General in Dakar, 1962-1964-

“…[T]he French jealously guarded their colonial prerogatives and would not permit other countries to intervene, especially culturally — the teaching of English was frowned upon for example.”

Laurent E. Morin, Vice Consul in Algiers, Algeria-

“I was there (in Algiers), 1948-1950. There were two major opposition movements, but they were not terrorist, just meetings. In fact those two movements, later on during the rebellion were considered rather friendly compared to the FLN. But at that time the French were very suspicious of it all, and they were suspicious of the U.S. government. They had the idea that we were pushing this.  The story in Algiers was that Roosevelt at the summit meeting at the Hotel Anfa in Casablanca had obtained a promise that Algeria would be given to the States. This was complete nonsense, but that is what people thought. The French were most unhappy with the thought that we were sympathetic to the natives and feared we might be doing something for them. For instance, our phones were tapped by our great allies by using equipment left behind by the U.S. Army. We were blasted in the Paris papers. I remember one period when there were headlines in the French press, the tabloids, saying “the American consulate at Algiers is promoting the nationalist movement”.

Robert H. Miller, Ambassador to the Ivory Coast, 1983-1986-

“The relationship between the French and ourselves in parts of the world where the French have the predominate interests is always a touchy one. We were very friendly, the French ambassador and I, socially. We would exchange information, but basically he wasn’t very forthcoming. He never took the initiative, as I recall, to brief me on developments that he was aware of. Some of his staff were more helpful to our staff, but he was rather standoffish.  The French were always, in my experience, concerned if we were too active; had we been more active in the Ivory Coast they would have been convinced that we were doing it to supplant them, to get them out of there. It is a sensitivity on the part of the French that is misplaced.”

Wingate Lloyd, Principal Officer, Cameroon, 1962-1964-

“American exports into Cameroon, as I look back on it now with more knowledge of trade policy, were probably being stymied at every turn by France. I’m sure that a French assistant was sitting behind the Minister of Economics when they looked at tariff schedules to insure that French products got priority. While there were some American automobiles, it was difficult to get any American products in there at all.

While it is apparent that the anti-American sentiment so strong during the de Gaulle period continues to be a factor in the French-U.S. relationship, nevertheless, this attitude does not dominate the official relationship. There is, after all, an acceptance by France and the United States that we share the same basic principles and goals and that in matters of grave international importance we will stand together. That does not mean that we do not have serious differences of opinion from time to time, notably when we differ as to what matters are of grave international importance or when one or the other perceives its vital interests threatened. Thus, the French, for their part, will insist on their right, even obligation, to oppose any American policy or action they consider ill advised or detrimental to French interests. In such cases their opposition will be firm and they will persist even at the risk of disrupting allied unity or inviting the displeasure of the United States. The French have the utmost confidence in their ability to determine what is best for France and, indeed, for the world.

In attempting to account for the reasons for French behavior, which is so often confrontational and obstructive in their official dealing with us, one is obliged to compare the relative positions of France and the United States today with their relative positions before World War II. The French must recognize that France is no longer the major world power that it was and that The United States has been a major beneficiary of its decline. Humiliating defeats in two world wars, in which the Americans twice came to their rescue, doubtless contributes to a sense of resentment of the French towards us. Furthermore, the loss of all but a few minor overseas possessions coupled with a significant loss of economic and military power are certainly a blow to French pride.  Such a situation would be difficult for any nation to accept, and it is particularly difficult for the French, a nation intensely proud of its culture, its political and economic excellence and above all, of its glorious past.

French pride is especially evident in their conduct of relations with us. Being justifiably proud of their nation’s culture and notably confident of their intellectual superiority, the French find it difficult to accept any inference that their reasoning is faulty or that their point of view is arguable. This sometimes results in their sticking doggedly to a policy or point of view in the face of the unanimous opposition from the other parties involved. This determination to maintain its independent position sometimes appears to be solely to call attention to France’s importance as a European power and to remind others that its views on world matters must be respected.

The emergence of the United States as the world’s sole super-power has altered France’s view of the Untied States. Prior to World War II France tended to consider the United States as another nation among many, one lacking a worthy cultural heritage and, for all its size and wealth, not in the same class as France and other European powers. The war changed all that. The U.S. was suddenly a Super-Power, then the sole super-power and as a powerful player in European and word affairs, consequently a major threat to French power and influence. 

The French are acutely uncomfortable with this situation. They fear that the United States, with its overwhelming economic and military power, will use this power in ways inimical to French interests at home, in Europe and elsewhere in the world. They have demonstrated that they are prepared to act unilaterally and collectively to contain it. France has on occasion been wary of entering into international agreements and organizations in which United States is a participant, presumably fearing that the United States, with its economic and military superiority will dominate and control. For this reason, as well as for French insistence on maintaining independence of action, the French are uncertain partners in international undertakings in which the United States is a part. They can be expected to examine every situation closely and join and cooperate only when they perceive that France’s national interests are being served.

Our closeness to the British is also troubling to the French. They appear to fear that the U.S. and the U.K. form a unique alliance of English-speaking nations, somehow inimical to French interests. Furthermore, they believe that we are seeking to supplant them politically, economically and culturally throughout the world and especially in their former possessions in Asia and Africa. French sensitivity to U.S. inroads in those areas, including to the teaching of the English language, has at times been of concern to us.

Finally, the French believe that they have the right, in fact, the obligation to judge each decision on the basis of what is considered to be in the best interests of France in the short and the long term and to act accordingly. They feel under no obligation to diverge from this judgment because of past relationships or sense of obligation for past favors. Their decisions and policies will continue to be based on French pragmatism, not on gratitude or sentiment. Independence of action and, above all, the perceived interests of France at home and abroad will continue to guide France in its relations with the United States.

*Note: The full text of the oral histories contained in this study are contained in “Frontline Diplomacy: The U.S. Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection” and the Frontline Diplomacy Supplement. Copies can be obtained from the Oral History Program of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training [ADST], NFATC/Foreign Service Institute, Department of State, Washington, DC 20522-4201; tel:  (703) 302-6990. Information regarding ADST can be found at


Mr. Mak served in the U.S. army during World War II and was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. The author entered the Foreign Service in 1946. He served in a variety of senior assignments in Washington and abroad before retiring in 1970.


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