How France Responded to 9/11

Student officers display an American flag on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks // Getty Images
Student officers display an American flag on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks // Getty Images / Student officers display an American flag on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks // Getty Images

One day after the September 11 attacks, Le Monde, the famed French daily, ran a front page editorial under the headline "NOUS SOMMES TOUS AMÉRICAINS," or "We Are All Americans." It began: “In this tragic moment, when words seem so inadequate to express the shock people feel, the first thing that comes to mind is this: We are all Americans!” Anyone of age on 9/11 likely remembers it. Indeed, it’s the only headline I remember in all the terrible days and weeks that followed. The simple statement of solidarity felt like a friend’s steadying hand.

The fog of the years that followed have left an impression of France as an obstacle to the United States' foreign policy, something to be negotiated. Certainly the French urged restraint when such reminders were needed. But the first foreign leader to visit the United States after the 9/11 attacks was French president Jacques Chirac. "France, I can tell you, will not stand aside in a fight against a scourge that defies all democracies," he said, as reported by BBC News. "Today it is New York that was tragically struck but tomorrow it may be Paris, Berlin, London."

Weeks later, for the first time in NATO’s history, the organization invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty: An attack on one is an attack on all. As war approached, the French proved willing to do more than mourn (though mourn they did), providing intelligence and naval assets, and flying reconnaissance missions over Afghanistan. The French also offered warplanes and commandos, and urged for the acceptance of thousands of soldiers in the French army who were stationed nearby. (It took some doing to bring the French fully into the conflict, war being as much a logistical challenge as tactical—a concept advanced by Napoleon, another Frenchman famous for helping the United States.) France proved not to be a mere fair-weather friend. Violence surged in Afghanistan in 2006, and President George W. Bush ordered an additional 10,000 troops. France was one of the few allied countries to agree to add forces to the battlefield.

This is all in keeping with history. During the Gulf War in 1991, not only did France fight alongside the U.S., but also placed the French military under the command of the United States military. Decades earlier, the United States helped liberate France from Nazi occupation, and during the reconstruction of Europe gave France billions of dollars in aid. This might be considered a debt repaid, as there wouldn’t be a United States without France, who provided officers to the Continental Army after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and who allied with the United States in 1778. The Battle of Yorktown, which marked the defeat of Great Britain, saw thousands of French soldiers fight alongside the Americans, and the French Navy battle the British on the seas.

As Paris comes to grips with the atrocity of the November 13 terrorist attacks, they are due our solidarity. NATO now seems poised to invoke Article 5 for the second time, with Syria the likely field of battle. If the United States stands at France’s side, it will be a position the two allies know well.