Sunday, April 03, 2011

Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys?

So a group of us were talking about Target the other day.  I don't recall exactly how it got brought up, but one of  the more opinionated people piped in to say she never shops at Target because it is owned by "cheese-eating surrender monkeys."  By this, she meant it was a French-owned corporation, which is why she refuses to shop there.

There are a lot of things wrong with this statement, but I want to focus on two: 1) the notion that Target is French-owned, and 2) the notion that the French are "cheese-eating surrender monkeys."  

To begin with, and to put it simply, Target is an American corporation founded in the 1960's in Minnesota.  It is about as French as I am - which is to say,  not at all.  It is based in Minneapolis.  It is not now, nor has it ever been, a French company.

I'm not sure where the notion comes from that Target is French, but it is apparently a common one because there is a brief article about it on - a website that specializes in confirming or debunking rumors and urban legends.  I wonder if it's not based on something as silly as the fact that a lot of folks colloquially refer to Target with a French accent: "Tar-zhay."

Regardless of its origins, it is totally and irrefutably false.  

Secondly, and in my opinion much more importantly, is it appropriate to refer to French people as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys?"  More to the point, did the French surrender impotently to the Germans in World War II?  

I googled this phrase and discovered that it was apparently first used on an episode of The Simpson's back in the mid-1990's, and was revived during the period of anti-French sentiment that preceded the start of the 2003 Iraq War.  Although it's been a while, I've heard it used before.

In any case, like any derogatory word or phrase, I find it highly offensive.  Unlike other offensive terms, which are frequently just based on linguistics (consider the N-word, for instance, which is a bastardization of "negro," which itself comes from the Latin word for "black"), this derogatory phrase about the French is based on a completely false notion about something that happened 70 years ago, before most of us were born.  Even if it were historically justified (which it is not), it would still be ridiculous to use it as a way of characterizing, and thus negatively stereotyping, an entire nation of people, most of whom, like us, weren't even alive when the event in question took place.  

It would be a little like calling every modern person from the American South a slave-beating racist, and thus refusing to shop at stores based out of southern states.
For those of you who might be historically impaired (that's a little joke, by the way), let me give you a little background on what, exactly, this phrase is referring to, and why it is insidiously false. 

In World War I, France suffered 1.6 million deaths, including 300,000 civilian deaths.  Those may just be sterile numbers on a page, but think about them for a moment.  1.3 million military deaths is more than all the military deaths in all the wars that the U.S. has ever fought in its entire history, including both sides of the Civil War.  300,000 civilian deaths would be like the entire city of Cincinnati, Ohio, being wiped out.  

There were also over 4 million French soldiers wounded.  

This was just one war, from 1914-1918.  And without going into an analysis of World War I, let me just say that these people all died for nothing.  World War I gained nothing for anyone.  It was a family quarrel between monarch cousins in Britain, Germany, and Russia.  

Just 20 years later - the very next generation - it all happened again, coming right on the heels of a major worldwide depression.  How "in the mood" would you have been for another war? 

In any case, Germany, under Hitler, invaded France in 1940.  Despite the claims of phrases like "surrender monkey," France did not lay down its weapons and surrender.  Countries like Austria surrendered.  Austria opened its capital city and let the Germans in without shedding a drop of blood.  

In France's case, they fought the Germans and got beat, plain and simple.  They were beaten by a superior military, and a superior military plan.  There may be no glory in defeat, but being defeated militarily, and just turning tail and surrendering, are two different things.  Furthermore, France was not alone in the Battle of France.  Britain was there too, and they fled in a mass retreat from Normandy, leaving the majority of their military equipment behind to be requisitioned by the Nazis.  But I don't ever hear anyone calling the British "surrender monkeys."  

From mid-May to mid-June, 1940, the French military lost about 85,000 soldiers.  That's significantly more than the U.S. lost in all of World War I.  I'd like for some mouthy American to stand face-to-face with one of the descendants of those 85,000 French soldiers killed in the Battle of France, and call them "surrender monkeys."  85,000 soldiers don't die surrendering.  

After the French were defeated by the Germans, they did indeed sign an armistice and Germany became their virtual overlords.  So they stopped fighting, right?  And old Uncle Sam had to bail them out, correct?  


If not for the French Resistance, which operated underground for the next five years, the Normandy Invasion in 1944 - America's crowning achievement - would never have happened.  Brave and heroic French men and women made it possible for thousands of brave and heroic Americans and British to invade Europe and defeat Hitler.  As many as 20,000 men and women of the French Resistance died fighting to undermine the Germans during the war.  Cheese-eating surrender monkeys?  Maybe the cheese part.  

Furthermore, French soldiers continued fighting in many areas for the remainder of the war, with another 50-60,000 being killed in action.  Cheese-eating surrender monkeys?

Maybe the cheese part.

Finally, another 270,000 French civilians perished during the duration of the war.  Cheese-eating get the point.

All told, France lost over 500,000 men and women in World War II, about 1.3% of its entire population.  Neither the U.S., nor the U.K., lost that many, and both those countries had larger populations, meaning their percentage of population losses were even less (about 0.9% for the U.K., and roughly 0.3% for the U.S.).

What that means, of course, is that France paid a much bigger price for World War II than either of the other western Allies.    

These facts hardly justify calling them "surrender monkeys," even in jest.

Unfortunately, the stereotype persists and will no doubt continue to persist.  In an odd turn of events, I took a break this evening from writing this post to eat dinner with my family.  A commercial came on for the upcoming film Arthur, starring Russell Brand.  In the commercial, a scene is shown where a woman kisses him roughly.  He says something like, "What was that?"  "A French kiss," the woman replies.  Brand's character then jokes, "The French surrendered.  That was more German."  

The French fought and died against the Germans.  They didn't lay down their weapons and invite the Germans to tea.  They were defeated by a superior military, who struck unexpectedly in a style of warfare that led Germany to victory after victory early in the war, over a lot more countries than just France.  By 1942, Germany held virtually all of western Europe and half of Russia.  It wasn't only France who got beaten.  Britain survived only because they were not connected by land, and even then they just barely avoided defeat by the German blitzkrieg.   

If not for French underground resistance fighters, who died in the tens of thousands, Normandy would never have happened, and Europe may never have been freed from the Nazis.   

It's time to put this insidious and ignorant stereotype about the French people and their actions in World War II to rest.  


couzinhub said...

I might add that when France signed the Armistice, the General De Gaule created a new french government from England, leading the free french forces, and refusing to « surrender ». The French Vichy Government that signed with the Germans was later defeated and replaced by the new government leaded by Charles De Gaule, who did it fast enough so France wouldn't become, as planed by the americans (AMGOT), a state ruled by the winners of the war.
SO really, not all french surrendered to the Germans, but also didn't fall into the American « trap » of the AMGOT.

Scott said...

Thanks for the comment, Couzinhub. You make another salient point to the discussion.

Unknown said...

I like this post very much but many would take great issue with the idea that those who fell in WW1 on the side of France and her allies did so for nothing. Indeed there's something of a debate about this in the UK at the moment, with the centenary of the beginning of the war happening next year.

You might be interested to read this piece by Max Hastings :

Scott said...

Thanks for the article, James. Obviously I glossed over World War I, but it was in an effort to prove my point about the bravery of the French.

Still, I'm not sure I can fully agree with this writer's heavily pro-British view of the righteousness of World War I. Both nations were trying to expand their empires and their influence. I think it's myopic to suggest the Germans were the bad guys, and the British were the heroes. I think both sides had their share of heroes and villains. And both sides were concerned primarily about the state of their own expanding empires, with little thought to the millions they sent to the slaughterhouse in order to achieve their goals.

Unknown said...


Scott said...

Yes, my nuts ARE huge. Thanks for asking.