Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
THE traditional conception of England among average Frenchmen is expressed in the words "perfidious Albion." Some years ago I made an effort to run down the source of the term. I failed. One meets it in the songs and epigrams of the French Revolution and in the political writings of the eighteenth century; it was used in the days of the Great King; but its origin is lost in the mists of time. Its modern currency goes back to the "treachery" that imprisoned Napoleon on St. Helena and allowed him to die there. I remember a remark of M. Laval in 1935 when the Ethiopian affair had divided the French people into "Anglophiles" and "Italophiles" and Henri Béraud had published his scandalous article, "England Must Be Reduced To Slavery." Said M. Laval to me: "The French people will never forget the Emperor's wretched end."
The epithet "perfidious Albion" is first of all to be explained by the continuous and often painful contact between the two peoples. In the Middle Ages the French and the English together made up a world apart. They did not yet think of themselves as two separate nations; in fact, it was during their never-ending struggles that each began to be aware of a feeling of patriotism. Under the feudal system French and English intermingled freely on French soil. Do not forget that for three centuries -- from the middle of the twelfth to the middle of the fifteenth -- Aquitaine was a dependency of the British crown. England was the only enemy that the French masses knew at first hand; on England was bestowed the hatred which must forever be the lot of an invader. And this hostility was reciprocated -- one need only read Shakespeare to perceive how cordially. Later on, the sentimental relations between France and England were seriously affected by the execution of Charles I, the husband of a French princess. That was a hard pill for the subjects of Louis XIV to swallow, and a generation later, when James II was in exile on the Continent, Bossuet was still talking of "the perfidious English." It was of little use to point out that during the sixteenth century some Frenchmen had excused regicide and that Mazarin, realist that he was, had struck an alliance with Cromwell. In the two centuries that followed, France had to win her national frontiers in the face of bitter resistance from England. And it was England who mothered the great coalitions formed against France from the day of Louis XIV down to Napoleon, and who always opposed French colonial ventures most fiercely.
But why the recurring allegation of treachery, of disregard for the plighted word? It probably is attributable to the balance-of-power policy deliberately followed by England. That policy implied frequent reversals of alliances, whereby the enemy of yesterday was shamelessly and unhesitatingly embraced in a new alliance. It implied conduct utterly divorced from moral considerations, a resort to any means that happened to prove convenient. It implied mercantilism and the quest for immediate and individual profit. In a word, it implied that empiricism which was to create the British Empire of the nineteenth century. The French, meantime, were obsessed by the metaphysics of divine right, in the international as well as in the domestic sphere. For them the gradual expansion of France to her "natural" frontiers invariably presented the same problems, to be solved by the same methods, generation after generation.
The constant squabbling in the British Parliament, the bitter struggles between the English parties, the frequent changes of ministry, the debates and pamphlets in which anything whatever could be said however much it might embarrass a ministry even in moments of dire national peril -- all these seemed to presage an early fall for the British state. The view that England was on its last legs was commonplace in France during the eighteenth century. Yet in the end victory never failed her -- except when the American "rebels" revolted. England went on annexing territories, seizing islands, fortifying straits. And what a contrast between the results she achieved and the effort she expended! The English were so disorderly, there was so little apparent coherence between their principles and their acts! They were forever "muddling along" -- yet with what persistence, what dogged obstinacy! It was all very bewildering to the French.
On the Continent the English put all sorts of obstacles in the way of France. She made a buffer state of Holland and forced the closing of the port of Antwerp. She vetoed the election of the Duc de Nemours, a son of Louis Philippe, to the throne of Belgium. She robbed France of her first colonial empire -- Canada and India -- and did all she could to prevent her building a second.
The Holy Alliance, first set up in 1815 and later revived at crucial moments in the form of close coöperation between Russia, Prussia and Austria, was of little avail in bringing the two liberal powers of the West together. Memories of the past and, worse, the colonial disputes which arose at regular intervals, continued to keep them apart. There was a first Entente Cordiale in 1831, engineered by Talleyrand, but it was soured by every sort of discord. A decade later, water-front brawls between sailors and distant bickerings between missionaries were enough to bring the two countries toe to toe with knives drawn. "Understanding but not intimacy," said Guizot, and he proceeded to spoil the possibility of any understanding with the affair of the Spanish marriage.
The second Entente Cordiale, that of Napoleon III, lasted five short years -- from the Crimean War (1854-1856), when England and France fought together against Russia, down to the French annexation of Savoy (1861). It was ended by a sudden outburst of the traditional animosity; and from its end Prussia was to profit. To anyone who wishes to study these old dissensions I recommend the memoirs of Hyde de Neuville, French Ambassador at Lisbon under Louis XVIII, or the letters of Louis Blanc, an exile of '48, who predicted the fall of England. Blanc, heir of the revolutionary tradition and of the men who insulted and denounced Pitt in 1792, had no conception of the British aristocracy as a bulwark of liberty, as the guardian of a sane and moderate democracy, one that has never found a sure foothold in France. He hated the "London oligarchy" as Napoleon had hated it. Blanc's anti-English prejudice exemplified the traditional attitude of the average Frenchman. Hyde de Neuville voiced rather the antipathy of the French upper classes, conservative and royalist. In the end, France and England became aware of their deep-reaching community of interests only when they saw their position in Europe compromised by the numerically expanding populations of the German and Slavic worlds. The Entente Cordiale of 1904, which for a time ripened into an alliance for war and which today is again becoming strong, is the measure of these changed circumstances.
Such, then, is the background, the inheritance from the past. It must be mentioned, and not too softly either, for it still comes into evidence from time to time. Even today in the remoter country districts one can find some old magistrate, loyal to the notions of his forebears, who will exclaim in comment on the Anglo-French alliance: "The English, sir, will always bear watching!" During the war, German propaganda played on the motif that England had found in France the continental soldier that she had always needed. That contention made little impression upon educated minds. Yet its influence was not negligible during the years after the peace treaties when Mr. Lloyd George took fright at French preponderance in Europe, though he must have known full well that it could at best be only momentary. In Paris today one can count on one's fingers the men in public life who cherish any dislike for England. None the less, they can draw upon an ancient fund of hostility when they consider it useful to do so.
As against this heritage from the past, one should note that Frenchmen who go to England, not for a weekend, but to live there for some years, receive an indelible stamp from the country and come to think of it as their second homeland. I know Frenchmen who have grown so accustomed to London society that they no longer feel at ease in a French environment. They are perhaps extreme cases, but they are representatives of a new French inclination to appreciate, and even to love, English civilization and to fall in with its characteristic ideas and atmosphere.
There have always been "Anglomaniacs" in France -- those who loved horses, sports, English gardens and country life and, above all, clothes. Toward the end of the past century it was customary to say of ultra-fashionable Parisians that "they had their laundry done in London." That ideas and habits have so evolved as to make England particularly understandable to the better class Frenchman there can be no doubt. What in a day gone by was the idiosyncracy or the "whim" of an individual has now become the fixed trait of a whole group. Not so long ago there was no end to French cartoons representing "the Englishman at home," "the Englishman abroad," "the English statesman." One sees few such caricatures in the papers today. And, let me say, attitudes have changed just as radically across the Channel. One has but to read Sterne's "Sentimental Journey" to discover what English travellers thought about their neighbors two hundred years ago. They found them superficial, frivolous, ready with fair words for any occasion, but stifling all sincere and humane sentiments under conventional poses. How could they have judged us otherwise? On leaving ship at Calais or Boulogne they were pounced upon, pursued, pillaged by a ravenous horde of porters and tavern-keepers who held in reserve for them every possible variation of the game of love and chance.
Down to the end of the nineteenth century many, perhaps most, Englishmen thought of a Frenchman as a cavalry officer with a monocle entering a café, whip in hand, picking a quarrel first with one person and then with another and finally stalking out leaving all the glassware broken. And the Englishman was paid back in the same coin. He was pictured in France as a sort of uncombed and unkempt bear, who was a stranger to all polite conventions and expressed his unpleasant personality by being rude to everybody whom he encountered. After those summary characterizations had been bandied back and forth for some generations, there came a time when they began to lose their freshness and, whatever the appearances to the contrary, to lose their vogue. That time came during the French Revolution when the two countries were at war but when French exiles in large numbers were residing in England. The émigrés discovered an England that was hospitable and generous to the unfortunate, that harbored amiable and cultivated women, that in public life exhibited a beautiful and powerful sense of freedom. The English, for their part, came to appreciate the more serious sides of French character.
Interesting to dwell upon might be the case of M. Aimé de Fleuriau, who died in 1938 after living for thirty years in London, first as Secretary to the French Embassy, then as Counsellor, and finally, from 1924-1933, as Ambassador. Aimé de Fleuriau was a Frenchman of the old school. He always wore a large, dotted bow tie and his suits were cut to an exquisitely French line. Fleuriau, and for that matter M. Paul Cambon, the great Ambassador to whom Fleuriau was long bound in intimate friendship and whom he finally succeeded, were never once known to enter a London haberdashery. Fleuriau came of a line of navy men. One of his grandfathers had been made a prisoner during the wars of the First Empire and had long groaned in duress on one of the scows into which the hereditary enemy packed such Frenchmen as the fortunes of war threw into his clutches. With a sixteenth century warrior's head, just made for a steel helmet but perched upon a body far too frail for it; with his formal manners that smacked of the old France; with a fondness for writing to his superiors in a style that he offered as a genuine reproduction of Saint-Evremond's; with his quickness to wrath; with his broken English which, far from improving, grew steadily worse over a quarter century -- Aimé de Fleuriau was born to be the most typical Anglophobe. And yet there is no doubt whatever that he eventually discovered across the Channel a climate that was wholly congenial to his mind and to his heart. After his retirement he was never able really to think of Paris as his home, and he fled to England every summer to pass a lonely vacation at Brighton.
Fleuriau's case is not exceptional. I shall never forget a despondent remark of Paul Cambon himself, when recalled from his London ambassadorship in 1921: "How painful it is to leave this charming society!" One could mention a long list of Frenchmen of one era or another whom England annexed body and soul. The late M. Gavard, who represented France at the Court of St. James after the war of 1870, left a volume of letters which Fleuriau might well have written. No end of names occur to one from the remoter past: Napoleon III, Chateaubriand, Voltaire; or going still farther back, the poet, Charles d'Orléans and John II ("the Good"), who was taken prisoner at Poitiers and passed a very agreeable captivity at Windsor and in the Tower of London. All these Frenchmen grew so accustomed to the London fog and to British ale that they quite forgot the brighter skies and the more enticing wines of their homeland.
This love of England is not merely a matter of individual temperament. There is at least one community on French soil which has never thought of the British Isles as entirely foreign. I am referring to Bordeaux. Bordeaux was taken from the English in 1543 by Charles VII of France. The city nevertheless revolted three times in the hope of returning to the British crown, probably because the English had taken good care of the vineyards and the customers of Bordeaux wine merchants. For a long time English and the local patois were the only languages known by the bourgeoisie of Bordeaux. To this day, on the tip of the "Great Belltower" there, an English leopard can be seen glistening in the sunlight. In 1814, when Wellington was advancing on Bordeaux after his victory at Toulouse, the mayor, an Irishman named Lynch, came out to meet him, bearing the keys of the city on a cushion. Had Lynch been born in Ireland a few generations later, he might have hated the English cordially enough to have won the fate of Sir Roger Casement. But having been born in Bordeaux he was an admirer and lover of England. He was made a count by Louis XVIII and each year, till his death, he gave a banquet on the anniversary of the arrival of the "Iron Duke" at Bordeaux.
A number of relics have come down to us from the time when Aquitaine was English. Back in the region between the Garonne and the Dordogne, I once knew a peasant who had risen to be assistant to the mayor of an obscure town. His name was Nelson Léglise! What more could one ask for? In Bordeaux society one is certain to be introduced to some such person as "John Dupont," for English first names are in high favor. It is also amusing to notice in the streets of that city any number of faces which could take the place of Lord Derby's as John Bull. The châteaux along the old Anglo-French frontier in Périgord and the Limousin all have English epochs in their histories.
I have wandered among these random memories in order to counteract the feeling, which one notes in many people, that the incompatibility of the French and English temperaments is irremediable. It is true that there are great differences between the two peoples as regards the way they bring up their young. No two things could be less alike than an English public school and a French lycée, though the recent growth of interest in sports and out-of-door life among Frenchmen may change that. It is likewise true that the average Frenchman complains of the commonplace and not very intellectual conversation of his British neighbor, whom he finds naïve and incurably satisfied with his own opinions. More, the Frenchman is usually pained to detect in the Britisher a certain air of social superiority which he takes to be aristocratic; he therefore finds personal relations easier with the German or the Italian, who are inclined to be more offhand, or if one will, more common. Paul Cambon used to say: "You can't imagine how arrogant the English diplomats were just before the Boer War. That brought the fragility of the Empire's foundations home to them. After the crisis had passed, their manner changed again!"
Parisian society, it must be admitted, is not what it used to be. The grand style of earlier days has vanished along with the magnificent châteaux and town houses of the old families. Entertaining is rare, and seldom sumptuous: it is frequently stingy to the point of being ungracious. Conversation is often gossipy and venomous, with no benefit of doubt accorded to the victim. Parisian society has come to have a decidedly bourgeois flavor, which naturally has little attraction for the Londoner. The social ties that were established between the two capitals in the day of Edward VII have now been stretched until they have all but snapped. On the other hand, since the war throngs of English people have been spending their vacations in France where they have become infatuated with the landscape, with our little towns, our rural taverns. The French better classes have not reciprocated these visits. The men, and especially the women, of French society have never fallen under the spell of London's social prestige. What is the reason for this? What does England really mean to the élite of France?
In the first place, the alliance with England (a defensive alliance has existed since the German reoccupation of the Rhineland) is the one element in French security that inspires a relatively abiding confidence. True, there is some dissatisfaction that England should have disarmed so completely after the victory, that her rearmament is now proceeding so slowly, that compulsory military service has not yet been instituted, that with her powerful industrial equipment England should not have managed to produce an air force capable of measuring up to Germany's and so failed to fill one striking gap in French military preparations. There is some resentment toward the many Englishmen who take it for granted that the French Army alone should man the forts and trenches while the nobler tasks on land and sea are reserved for them. English diplomacy is continually criticized -- and I am not referring to l'expérience Chamberlain, for that was approved by the French conservatives who had been so impressed by the propaganda of Mussolini and Hitler that they feared the social revolution and "interference from Moscow" much more than the Pan German menace. Ever since 1904 England's foreign policy has been denounced as weak and shortsighted. There is regret that it is no longer so tenacious as it once was. England is reproached for having fought French supremacy on the Continent after Versailles: she should have seen that French preponderance would have helped consolidate the defenses of the New Europe, and that, unlike the "organic" imperialism of the Germans, the hegemony of France could not, by the very nature of things, last long. The French like to quote Lord Tyrrell's epigram that "the real defect in English policy since 1918 has been to mistake the Germans for Englishmen and the French for Germans."
Yet in spite of everything, there can be no doubt that French public opinion would regard an attack upon English territory as equivalent to an attack upon France. The average Frenchman, in order to screw up his courage and to forget the too-often shortsighted realism of British diplomacy, repeats to himself that the English have won all the wars in which they have participated -- all except the one with the American colonies. It took the manipulations and subsidies of M. Laval and Signor Mussolini to work up a wave of anti-English feeling in France during the summer of 1935. For more than thirty years every single French cabinet has publicly declared that agreement with England must be the cornerstone of French policy. During the Czechoslovak crisis in September Mr. Chamberlain and Lord Halifax showed themselves, despite serious mistakes, as on the whole more resolute than MM. Daladier and Bonnet. Unfortunately, government propaganda has prevented that fact from becoming more generally known. Meantime, with Central and Eastern Europe lost, or all but lost, the common interests of the West become all the more clearly evident.
In the second place, the French are aware that the British monarchy, and the democratic parliamentary system to which it is bound, are the chief pillars of liberal civilization in the world today. British institutions offer the one emphatic refutation to the claims of the Fuehrer and the Duce that they have discovered the governmental machine best calculated to develop a nation's power. By their permanence and their smooth working, by the astonishing success with which they turn out capable governments without in any way restricting or curtailing freedom or criticism, British political institutions bear witness that it is not necessary for men to sell their souls in order to build a community strong and ready for any sacrifice. A leader who respects human dignity strikes all level-headed Frenchmen as superior to a Fuehrer. Whether this feeling will endure, even in the immediate future, is a matter of some doubt. Will mere "leaders" find a way to prepare their countries for the totalitarian war? The pictures of Sir John Simon and Sir Samuel Hoare, to say nothing of Mr. Chamberlain with his faithful umbrella, are not such as to inspire conviction.
The French admire the British aristocracy because it is always in the process of rejuvenation, because it is always at the service of the state, and because it is always popular. All trace of such a thing has vanished in France, probably because of the servitude to Versailles that was thrust upon the turbulent French nobility by Louis XIV. To plumb the depths of this French admiration, one has only to turn to pages written by the Comte de Montalembert around 1850 on "The Future of England." Says Montalembert: "Socialists and absolutists are both praying for the downfall of England because she has too long confounded them both. Her ever-growing power, her unabridged freedom, her incomparable prosperity, provide formidable answers both to Socialist demagoguery, which would strain everything through the sieve of a savage equality, and to monarchical theory, which can conceive of preserving the masses from disorder and fear only by thrusting them down into silence and insignificance. England has offered honest people her own glorious example of the way to escape from such a disgraceful dilemma. Since the failure, or abdication, of continental liberalism, England stands alone in the world. On all sides one senses the secret impatience of those who are wondering: When will the world be relieved of this nightmare? Who will free us of this covey of obstinate aristocrats and out-moded liberals? When will there be a humbling of the pride of this people that defies the laws of logic, that makes bold to believe both in tradition and progress, to retain royalty, reject revolution and eschew despotism? This eager waiting on a neighbor's mishap finds the most disparate mouthpieces. It besets the defenders of the repressions in Naples as well as the eulogists of the spoliations in Madrid. 'Thou art wounded even as are we. Thou art like unto us. How art thou fallen from Heaven, O Lucifer, who didst harass the peoples?'" One should note that Montalembert goes on to condemn severely the policy of the Foreign Office, the premium placed on revolution, the order of St. George, the unbearable arrogance of the English, and so on.
And indeed, what a lesson the "Mother of Parliaments" can give the Popular Front in France: a legislative power which exercises rigorous control over the executive, but which never distracts Parliament from its real task of supervision by setting up committees that encroach upon the executive power or embarrass its functioning; a majority that never abuses its power, a minority that never forgets the responsibilities which it may be called upon at any moment to assume, and a predisposition on the part of both majority and minority to avoid extremes and observe a certain continuity; the feeling on the part of each individual that his rights are limited by those of other people; a monetary and financial administration that knew how to adapt itself to facts after 1931 and to revise sacrosanct principles of dogma when necessary; a severe discipline of public opinion; a press that is inclined on the whole to respect the truth and is immune, except by accident, to foreign propaganda; labor unions which are required by law to have a sense of their responsibilities; public officials that are almost above reproach; courts of justice that are invariably independent. It was amusing to watch the members of the French Parliament after the war when they were brought into contact with their English colleagues, particularly on those occasions when the Socialists were attending congresses in London. They were like fish out of water. Whenever anybody finds fault with the French system of government, he takes the British system as a basis for comparison.
But England influences the Frenchman whom she touches in other ways than in politics. She influences his conceptions of the life of the individual. Not that the conventions of the English -- their fictions of one sort or another, their moral prohibitions and inhibitions, their narrow-minded taboos, their preoccupation with respectability -- overawe the Frenchman. Quite the contrary, these irritate and anger him. But he none the less falls under the spell of that model human being, the "gentleman." He appreciates, moreover, those exceptional individuals, men of energy or originality, sometimes absurd, who in England perhaps more frequently than in other countries stand out from the common run of people, manifesting a complete disregard for the judgment others may pass upon them and demonstrating the greatest independence in thought and action. "The Englishman, like a free man, goes to heaven by the way which pleases him," wrote Voltaire. In France, where there is greater freedom in manners and morals and where the word "cant" is intranslatable, general ideas exercise a more tyrannical sway, circulating rapidly as small change, harmful to those who use them without adding anything of their own. The leveling of social classes tends much more noticeably in France than in England to end in a leveling of personalities.
To complete the picture one must not forget what may be called the romantic side of the English people. This aspect of English character, as it stands revealed in daily life, is not visible to every observer. Almost all foreigners are repelled by certain disagreeable traits in the general conduct of the English -- their humanitarian outlook, for example, which is often a flimsy mask for selfishness. At times it seems as though in England general principles are set up only to permit the triumph of momentary and quite mundane interests. Still unforgotten is the rebuke that one of Gladstone's adversaries addressed to that statesman: "I do not mind your playing with a card up your sleeve. What I object to is your pretending that God put it there."
In that regard the history of the League of Nations offers no end of pertinent examples. Talking of eternal things with an eye to one's own business -- that was a failing commonly attributed to the English delegations. Rebukes from "old maids and Oxford students," to use an expression of Henri Béraud, and the very peculiar direction that the English give to certain movements of opinion, exasperate the French. But, apart from such shortcomings, not a few Englishmen manifest, in common with their love of country life and rural solitude, an inclination toward solitary meditation, a taste for secret hermitage, a disdain for conventions, for ready-made phrases, for beaten paths, a yearning for sincerity with oneself and with others whereby human feelings break free from all prejudices and formulas and explode with as much force and freshness as if the world were born but yesterday. One has only to think of what the discovery of Shakespeare meant to Frenchmen imbued with the classical tradition. But I must not linger on this aspect of England's influence upon the French, for it is confined to a very small number of individuals. M. Poincaré was astonished one day, on opening a book that Ramsay MacDonald had dedicated to his wife, to fall upon the passage where Mac-Donald declares that a sunset is for him the most moving of spectacles. "An Englishman fond of nature!" M. Poincaré exclaimed to me. "Imagine that!"
I draw no formal conclusion from all that I have been saying. I have simply been trying to show that in spite of their temperamental differences the French and English peoples are pretty well able to get along together. For all of their quarrels, mistakes, strayings, mutual fault-findings, they realize that if their cause, with all that is bound up with it, were to fail, life would not be worth living any more. Only negligence on the part of the French Government can destroy this profound solidarity.