19 Bits of Advice About the French, As Told to American Servicemen in WWII
By Nick Greene
In 1944, American soldiers were given a booklet to read and keep in their gear as they prepared to storm the beaches of Normandy. Titled A Pocket Guide to France, this short text contained basic cultural background for the country they would help liberate, as well as practical advice for interacting with the French.
The booklet has since been declassified and can be read here [PDF]. (It is also available in print via the University of Chicago Press, under the name Instructions for American Servicemen in France During World War II.) It holds up as a culturally sensitive and practical work, albeit one that pertains to the highly specific scenario of traveling through France immediately after D-Day.
Listed below are examples of the kinds of things the American military wanted its soldiers to be cognizant of as they worked their way into Nazi-occupied France. While the advice here is chippy and optimistic, other parts of the booklet serve as a reminder of the precariousness of the entire ordeal: "We don’t know just what the war has done to Paris. These notes will assume that there’ll still be lots to see."
The French Character
1. "The French are mentally quick."
2. "The French … have an extreme respect for property … the Frenchman’s woodpile is just as sacred to him as the Banque de France."
3. "The French are individualists … this has its good as well as its bad side … Stay out of local discussions, even if you have had French II in High School. In any French argument on internal French affairs, you will either be drowned out or find yourself involved in a first class French row."
4. "The French are not given to confidences, or to telling how much money they make—or used to make—or to bragging. And they think little of such talk from others."
5. "The French have a remarkable capacity for minding their own business."
6. "The French also shake hands on greeting each other and on saying goodbye. They are not backslappers. It’s not their way."
7. "France has been represented too often in fiction as a frivolous nation where sly winks and coy pats on the rear are the accepted form of address. You’d better get rid of such notions right now if you are going to keep out of trouble."
8. "You have certainly heard of gay Paree yet the French have far less the regular habit of pleasure than we Americans."
9. "The workman will welcome you; he is a regular fellow. In his velveteen pantaloons and beret he will look more picturesque than his opposite number back home in the United States. He is what the French call le peuple—The People. They have more sense, resistance, and pride than any other class in France."
10. "Mostly, the French think Americans always act square, always give the little fellow a helping hand and are good natured, big-hearted and kind."
Food and Drink
11. "The French are good talkers and magnificent cooks—if there still is anything left to put in the pot."
12. "The neighborhood French café is the most French thing in all of France. If you want to be welcome when you come back a second time use the café the way the French do. As you’ll see by looking around you, the Frenchman comes there with his family. It is NOT a place where the French go to get drunk."
13. "Like all wine-drinking people, the French don’t drink to get drunk. Drunkenness is rare in France."
14. "French beer is flatter and more slippery than our beer but the French like it."
15. "The French have never liked their drinks ice-cold just as they have never liked strong mixtures like cocktails, which they think ruin the appetite before a meal."
Love and Sex
16. "France is full of decent women and strict women. Most French girls have less freedom than girls back home. If you get a date, don’t be surprised if her parents want to meet you first, to size you up."
17. "While it is true that the French point of view toward sex is somewhat different from the American, it does not follow that illicit sex relations are any safer than in the United States. As a matter of fact there is a greater risk of contracting venereal diseases."
18. "Almost anybody in France can get chummy with a special sort of hard-boiled dame who, for obvious reasons, is sitting alone at a café table."
19. "If a girl doesn’t carry a prostitute’s card, then she is an 'irregular' … bur 'regular' or 'irregular,' either kind can present you with a nasty souvenir of Paris to take back home."