By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
France’s presidential election put NATO and Russia in its crosshairs. Incumbent Emmanuel Macron faced off against challenger Marine Le Pen in a potentially historic election. France once came close to war with the United States.
Incumbent President Emmanuel Macron won a second term last Sunday when he won the presidential election in France, which could have major implications for the future of international relations throughout Europe. Challenging candidate Marine Le Pen has, at times, stood at odds with both NATO and the European Union. She also supported Russian President Vladimir Putin in his claims that Russia has rights to the Crimean peninsula. President Macron has taken a far different stance on all these issues.
France is no stranger to handling major domestic and foreign issues at the same time. In her video series Living the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon, Dr. Suzanne M. Desan, the Vilas-Shinners Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains how France almost fought a war against the United States while sorting out its own revolution.
The Genêt Fallout
As the French Revolution unfolded, a diplomat named Edmond-Charles Genêt went to the United States to ask for help. Genêt asked the U.S. to repay its debt to France, stemming from France’s assistance during the American Revolutionary War, and to voice its support for France, including taking up arms against England and Spain. When the American government declined, he threatened to take to the streets and win the people’s support against President Washington’s wishes.
This insult sat poorly with the government, giving the Federalists like John Adams more evidence to oppose France.
“In 1794, the U.S. cozied up to England with a new treaty, the Jay Treaty,” Dr. Desan said. “The British were the big winners in this treaty. Their goods could enter American ports without paying tariffs, but the British refused to recognize that the Americans had the right as a neutral power to trade with whoever they wanted to—that is, to trade with France.
“In short, this treaty promoted British-American trade, but it forced the Americans to turn their neutrality against France.”
Unsurprisingly, the French noticed this almost immediately and the rift between France and America grew. At sea, French privateers seized any goods from American ships that were headed to or from Britain.
The XYZ Affair
In 1797, President John Adams sent three envoys to France to attempt to stop the French privateers from interfering in America’s trade with Britain. They were to deal with the new French foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who was no fan of the United States.
“Talleyrand angled to get an American loan and an apology for Adams’s belligerent stance,” Dr. Desan said. “Unfortunately, he also asked for what the French call une douceur—’a sweetening’—in other words, a bribe. The Americans refused.”
Infuriated, Adams told Congress about the insult and referred to Talleyrand’s agents by the letters X, Y, and Z. Soon, “The XYZ Affair” was everywhere in the American media. According to Dr. Desan, Adams and the Federalists launched what was known as the Quasi-War. They cut off trade with France and even encouraged American privateers to raid French ships.
“The Americans also expanded their military; they built warships and set up a Naval Department,” she said. “Neither side declared war officially, but French and American ships were more or less at war for the next two years.”
With current-day France’s position as a nuclear power and major figure in international politics—during a time when Russia stands at odds with the rest of the world—there’s little hope for smooth sailing ahead.