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The rumors aren’t true: French Military History

Maybe your mom used to tell you, like mine did, “Every joke is rooted in the truth.” And that may be the case when making fun of family members, but today let’s dispel one myth that’s generated a lot of jokes in the last seventy years or so:

“The French never win anything / always surrender / are a bunch of cowards.”

Belief in this myth has spawned a lot of jokes:

“For sale: French army rifles. Never fired, dropped once.”

“What does Maginot Line mean in French? —’Speed bump ahead’.”

Or the prank by which a Google search of “French military victories” used to yield…well, here’s a picture of it:


If they make so many jokes about it, it must be true, right? Well…

In recent-ish memory, the French did get their butts handed to them by the German blitzkrieg, which was a war tactic no one in Europe was prepared for. Which is why so many other countries in Europe also found themselves either under the Reich or begging to join their club (I’m looking at you, Mussolini). Hindsight is 20/20, right? But what’s remarkable is that even with Hitler doing a little dance under the Eiffel Tower and their country occupied by Nazis and collaborators, over a million French people continued to fight with the Allies, providing pivotal support in such major events as D-day. So yeah, a lot of French people gave a heavy sigh and invited the Nazis in, but many brave men and women continued to resist and helped to win the war.

How about French military history overall? The Wikipedia article on it quotes British historian Niall Ferguson as saying that France has participated in 168 major European wars since 387 BCE, out of which it won 109, drawn 10 and lost 49, making the country the most successful military power in European history.

Granted, France has been around a lot longer than the good old US of A, but it kind of puts things into perspective when you think we have guys running around wearing these:



How about the French military today?

The 2013 French budget for military expenditures is 58.9 billion dollars, excluding their Gendarmerie (sort of like the National Guard). That’s 2.3% of the country’s GDP. For a country substantially smaller than the United States, it’s a lot of people and a lot to spend. France has 469,461 members in its purely volunteer-based military. There are 5.5 active military members for every 1000 people (7.3 per 100 total), compared to the USA’s 4.5 active per 1000 (also 7.3 total per 1000). (And people call them lazy!) There are a surprisingly small number of aircraft carriers in the world, but France has one of them.

I could keep digging up stats for you, but I won’t. If you want to keep making your inaccurate jokes grounded in a poor understanding of history, knock yourself out. As for me, my understanding of France can mostly be summed up by this painting:


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