French Cuffs

Fragile Glory: A Portrait of France and the French

by Richard Bernstein
Knopf, 349 pp., $24.95

Beyond the Tunnel of History

by Jacques Darras, with Daniel Snowman
University of Michigan Press, 123 pp., $19.95

'La France en Politique 1990'

Esprit, 219 pp., 70.00 Fr.

La Vengeance des Nations

by Alain Minc
Grasset, 273 pp., 100 Fr.

One fine summer’s day, the great Lord Curzon, then British secretary of state for foreign affairs, received a delegation from Mosul. When they were ushered in to his presence he was busy writing and he invited them to go to the window and to look at the people enjoying the sunshine in the park. They were polite men and they did so. After a while Lord Curzon joined them. “How many people do you think we can see?” he asked. Since they were especially polite men the delegation ventured on a number of guesses. But the secretary of state soon put an end to the conversation. “It doesn’t matter how many there are,” he said. “But you can be sure of one thing. Not a single one of them has ever heard of Mosul.” Thus the delegation was put in its place. They knew how unimportant they were.

The French have always been fearful that they might be made to appear unimportant. One lesson that they have never forgotten is that of Yalta. General de Gaulle was not invited to the conference held in 1945 when Stalin, a sick Roosevelt, and a disgruntled Churchill divided up the world. All that the French received was a message that Roosevelt, on his way home from the Black Sea, would meet De Gaulle in Algiers, a gesture that added injury to the already grievous slight, since it appeared that Roosevelt chose not to know that Algiers was a part of French territory and chose to overlook the protocol that prevented him from inviting himself there. On many other occasions the French have taken note of how others have excluded them. John Foster Dulles touring Europe and passing Paris by. Macmillan and Kennedy conferring together about the future. Reagan and Gorbachev meeting in Iceland. The French thought that they should have been present since that would have demonstrated the importance of France. Such a presence might have been little more than symbolic. But a symbol is always acceptable.

Richard Bernstein tells a story that adds a different dimension to this attitude. He has heard of a wine grower in the Bordeaux region who insisted that his children should, first thing every weekday morning, watch an American news program on television. That way, he said, they would see how rare it was for Americans to mention France. They would therefore realize how unimportant France had become to the rest of the world.

This particular Frenchman was undoubtedly an eccentric. But his action reveals one part of a dialogue that has become particularly sharp over the past few months. There are those who have for long claimed that France has become a second- or third-class power and who have said that this was obvious to any rational observer. Giscard d’Estaing spoke of France being a middle-sized power, while Edgar Pisani, a distinguished servant of the French state if ever there was one, who has served both General de Gaulle and President Mitterrand in the most…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.