High life | 25 August 2012

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With the exception of the French Academy immortals Michel Déon and Jean d’Ormesson, two wonderful writers and both the epitome of charm and graciousness, the French can be a pretty silly lot. They weren’t always. They got that way sometime between the two great wars, and turned even sillier during the German occupation and following their liberation by Eisenhower and co. Humiliated by Prussia in 1871, saved by America in 1917, done in for good by Germany in 1940, there were two more débâcles in store, Indochina and Algeria, but I’m jumping ahead.

I’ve just finished two books on Paris during the occupation and the liberation, one by Alan Riding about the cultural life in the capital, the other, a real gem, Paris After the Liberation, by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper, published 18 years ago. (There is also the Charles Glass book on Americans in Paris during that period.) Riding was a New York Times correspondent, which gave me bad vibes, but his book was fun to read, probably the only interesting thing I’ve read from someone employed by that temple of boring political correctness, predictability and necrosis. (John Burns excluded.) Beevor and Cooper, needless to say, write beautifully and from the inside. They are husband and wife and her grandparents were Duff and Diana Cooper, he the British ambassador to the City of Light when there was very little of it after Jerry had left. (There was even less heat and food.)

A very silly Englishman — I think Cottrell was his name — once asked me whether deep in my heart I wished to be English. I laughed out loud. If I could have been someone other than who I am, I told him, I would have chosen to have been an officer of Rommel’s 25th Panzer Regiment of 7th Panzer Division, the greatest fighting unit ever, and one that beat the frogs cleanly and honorably. With Paris literally at my feet, and in that incredibly dashing uniform, the Fräuleins would have come running. We all know that Hemingway liberated the Ritz, but hardly any French realised that it was the Yankees who decided to move against Paris in order to avoid the destruction of the city, and graciously allowed General Leclerc (a good one) to advance on the capital. Eisenhower meant to leave Paris in German hands for a time in order to allow Patton to follow the retreating Germans across northern France and into Germany. To take the city meant he’d have to feed it — which at the end he did — slowing down the mercurial Patton who was left without fuel and supplies.

Needless to say, this is not how the French write about the period. Not unlike the Austrians, who convinced the world that Beethoven was one of them and Hitler a German, the froggies to this day believe de Gaulle actually liberated them. But this is normal. Like von Moltke, the dour German field marshal who laughed out loud when one of his subordinates pointed out that a particular French town was impregnable (the only other time he laughed was when his mistress left him for an actor), the French need victories against the Germans almost as much as the Italians need victories tout court.

In the face of defeat and occupation, the French responded with resignation and accommodation. Fascist French writers such as Céline, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Benoist-Mechin, Robert Brasillach and Charles Maurras did not cheer but looked to Marshal Pétain to shield the nation. Communist writers like Aragon and Beauvoir were tainted by the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact of ’39. After the liberation, everyone turned out to have been a resister, and false accusations, hypocrisy, opportunism and downright revenge became the norm. Sitting-on-the-fence was at best what most artists and intellectuals did during the occupation. Sartre, a hero of the resistance afterwards, wrote books and produced plays, all of which were passed by the German censors but were discovered to have been anti-German after the war. Go figure, as Hemingway never said.

French artists visited Germany to underline cultural co-operation, among them Maurice de Vlaminck, Kees van Dongen, André Derain, Maurice Chevalier, Viviane Romance, Suzy Delair and the beautiful and sexy Danielle Darrieux, the last while married to Porfirio Rubirosa. The American socialite Florence Gould held a literary salon in occupied Paris, with the great Ernst Jünger in attendance and in German uniform. Sacha Guitry and Jean Cocteau were busy working throughout and briefly jailed afterwards. Tens of thousands were brought to trial, thousands were executed, the most prominent being Robert Brasillach, a writer whom De Gaulle could have saved but refused to do so. La Rochelle committed suicide, Céline survived after a brief prison term in Denmark. Céline was a man of the left until he visited the Soviet Union. He then denounced Jews and Communists as warmongers — he was a doctor who treated the poor and the underprivileged throughout his life — and embraced the far right.

And the show went on, during and after. The posturing of French intellectuals, who made fun of Hemingway but embraced terrorist action, was at best irresponsible, at worst criminal. Simone de Beauvoir’s extremism did not cause her any problems; on the contrary, she was fêted by everyone, starting with glossy American fashion magazines. No Robert Brasillach she. De Gaulle’s cross of Lorraine was the heaviest his allies were to bear, as it was for his countrymen. He is considered a very great man. He was nothing of the sort. He was a contrarian who bluffed as leader of a great power, a power that was lost 130 years before at Waterloo. I read the books and headed for France and a lunch to celebrate Napoleon’s birthday given by our chief executive.