I can understand why GIs considered France as a huge brothel, when they entered it during the Second World War.
Prior to that the majority of Americans did not travel abroad and their knowledge outside their own country was rather poor. Hence, as liberators they struck a good chord with French women since they associated their land with seduction and sex.
However, there was plenty of romance and passion – but also rape and prostitution on a large scale.
A new book by an American historian examines the bonds that formed between the French and their saviours from the other side of the Atlantic. What Soldiers Do by Mary Louise Roberts, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also helps to explain the mutual distrust that has marked post-war Franco-American relations.
On the French side there is an unspoken grievance at the emasculation of French men. On the US side, there is condescension for men who allowed themselves to be emasculated.
Philippe Coste, the New York correspondent for L’Express, said that the book will help to ‘lance a boil that remains painful even after so many years. The French will surely be satisfied that their complex sentiments about their liberators are finally being explained or excused’.
Roberts gained access to previously secret archive material, which she says shows that D-Day was widely viewed in the US army as the gateway to erotic fantasy. The prevailing view was summed up by Joe Weston, a journalist at Life: ‘France was a tremendous brothel inhabited by forty million hedonists.’
Weston says, ‘The American military hierarchy did nothing to dispel the prevalent view of France as a land of low morality and high jinx. Indeed, stereotypes were encouraged.’
The myth of the manly GI turned out to be too successful, the book says. Sexual fantasies about France did indeed motivate GIs to get off the boat and fight, but such fantasies unleashed a veritable tsunami of male lust. Romances flourished, to the anger of French men unable to compete with their well-fed, muscular and comparatively wealthy American counterparts.
Many had assumed that liberation would allow them to regain their pre-war status as citizens of a great power. Instead, as they were booted out of their own bedrooms, they realised that a new world order had been established.
Rural, conservative France suffered a notable shock as American soldiers propositioned the most respectable of women – sometimes in front of their husbands. Prostitution flourished and cities such as Le Havre became what one councillor called ‘the Wild West of France’. Within six months of the D-Day landings, one hundred and fifty-two American soldiers had been prosecuted for rape.
By no means all the consequences of Franco-American wartime relations were negative. Michel Frett, now a retired car worker, was born of the fifteen-day liaison between his mother and a Mr Benson in Echery, eastern France. ‘They had a beautiful romance,’ he said. Mr Fret took sixty-five years to trace his father to Houston, Texas and met him when he was ninety-one – less than a year before he died. He said that his father had seen France as the land of ‘good living and happiness’. His mother, for her part, saw the American soldier as ‘a liberator – and a handsome one at that’.
In times of war the inconceivable happens. The profane, as well as rare acts of goodness, blurs our vision – and we are left with memories that on the whole we would like to bury and forget.
Wars are inhuman and bring out the worst in us. Both conqueror and conquered pay an unacceptable price for the folly of war that leaves no one immune from pain and personal tragedy, and it is always because the lessons of history are ignored and unheeded.