President Donald Trump followed up a successful week in Europe with a visit to France for Bastille Day and the 100-year commemoration of America’s entrance into World War I.
He also held a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron to talk about the Syrian civil war, the Middle East, terrorism, and other topics concerning both countries.
While the two leaders have had a fairly rocky relationship so far, this is an important gesture for two countries that share so much history—whether they like it or not.
In a sense, Trump is following up on his Poland speech, in which he appealed to the Polish people’s greatest national mores while calling for the country to embrace its role in Western civilization against forces that mean to destroy it.
Despite serious differences in policy and outlook, France and the United States must work together against common threats.
A Tomb Fit for a Pharaoh
Fittingly, Trump visited the tombs of Napoleon Bonaparte and Ferdinand Foch, who was one of the great French generals of World War I.
Both of these massive tombs are in the Hôtel national des Invalides, which serves as France’s national war museum and a final resting place for some of the country’s most venerated military heroes.
Under the Dôme des Invalides sits Napoleon’s massive sarcophagus. He is surrounded by imposing statues and various French conquerors.
Napoleon’s absurdly massive tomb looks more suitable to an Egyptian pharaoh, and is quite different from anything you will see in the U.S.—this is France after all. Though it may seem strange to Americans, Napoleon remains a generally revered figure in France.
America has ideas at its national core and is a republic that has withstood the test of centuries. France, on the other hand, has history and a people, but has struggled to embrace a permanent political identity.
Though the Declaration of Independence is etched in the American soul, the “Rights of Man” have perhaps always divided the French heart. Nevertheless, France holds a critical place in Western civilization.
As Winston Churchill said of France in World War II:
All my life I have been grateful for the contribution France has made to the culture and glory of Europe, and above all for the sense of personal liberty and the rights of man which has radiated from the soul of France … Show me a moment when I swerved from this conception, and you will show me a moment when I have been wrong.
Making America great again and making France great again are two distinct tasks for countries with vastly different traditions.
Napoleon’s victories and conquests in Europe are well-known, but they are not quite the outlier in France’s history that Americans often perceive them to be. Our point of reference is often France’s quick capitulation to the Germans in World War II and unwillingness to fight in the Iraq War.
But France was once one of the world’s great military powers, and a century ago, helped win what was at the time the bloodiest war in human history.
Proud Military History
World War I could not have been won without France. The Western Front, bloodily held for four years against the might of the German army, was primarily manned by French soldiers.
American and British contribution to victory in World War I was great, but France was the lynchpin in continental Europe.
The French poilus—the colloquial term for French soldiers in World War I—fought valiantly against a German army that had grown to become the most powerful in Europe. The country was bled white and suffered millions of casualties, but it endured.
When the American Army arrived on the front in 1917, it was often armed with French weapons and technology—about one-third of all tanks, field artillery, and airplanes used by the doughboys came from France, according to historian Robert A. Doughty.
It would also likely surprise many Americans to know that it was once France, not the United States, that served as the “arsenal of democracy.” In many ways, American arrival in the war seemed to be a returned favor for French assistance in the American Revolution. In a famous speech in Paris, Gen. Charles E. Stanton gave the American Army a rallying cry, “Lafayette, we are here!”
On the blood-soaked fields of northern France, American and French soldiers fought side by side to deliver the knockout blow to Germany.
The French were—and clearly still are—proud of their victory in World War I as much as it prepared the way for to the nation’s misery and spectacular defeat in World War II.
With the aid of the overwhelming industrial and military power of the United States, France was liberated from the Nazi scourge that threatened to plunge not only Europe, but the whole world into darkness.
Now the world faces new evils, and the country is again in the crosshairs.
Uniting the West
A century after World War I, and a half-century after World War II, France is again becoming a battleground for the soul of Europe.
The country, like much of Europe, is at a crossroads. The “nationalist vs. globalist” forces and the underlying threat of Islamist terrorism still boil beneath the surface after Macron’s election.
The menace of terrorism is now ever present, especially in France’s big population centers.
It has become such a problem that soldiers now frequently patrol the streets of Paris, and the city has announced it will construct a bulletproof glass “wall” around the Eiffel Tower to protect it from bomb attacks—a grudging concession to reality for a people obsessed with art and beauty.
It is vitally important that France—in an era of constant terrorist threats and a rising, recalcitrant Russia—embrace its greatest traditions and its role in the West.
France’s critical role as a bastion of Western civilization will not be preserved by the flabby and meddling European Union or the economically destructive Paris climate accord.
Instead, France will be bolstered by increasing its commitment to NATO and by re-embracing its age-old values of culture, religion, and civil society to begin countering moral decay, cultural weakness, and bureaucratic centralization.