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French Stereotypes Nothing Nouveau

Louis XVI, King of France from 1774 to 1792, who was overthrown by the French Revolution and was guillotined on January 21, 1793
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They don't bathe. Their women are loose. In war they're quick to surrender and have to be rescued by Americans.

These and other choice stereotypes about the French have been flying about since their government defied the American line on Iraq. Now a hot-selling booklet is showing that there's nothing new about it.

Written nearly 60 years ago, "112 Gripes about the French" was a U.S. Army publication intended as a prejudice-busting primer for the American troops occupying France after World War II.

Revived under the charitably translated title, "Nos Amis, Les Francais," ("Our Friends, the French"), the booklet has become a hit in France.

As a history lesson, the book shows that once the euphoria of liberation from Hitler's army wore off, it wasn't all chocolates, chewing gum and kisses that were being exchanged between the French and the GIs.

In question-and-answer format, it lists 112 impressions among the GIs about the French that its author debunks, explains or, in rare cases, confirms.

If the French seem unwashed (criticism No. 45), it's because the Germans hogged the soap, the book explains.

Gripe 56: French women are "immoral." Explanation: "The immoral Frenchwomen are, of course, the easiest women for us to meet. That's why we meet so many of them."

Much of the book praises the French.

Answering Gripe 6 — "Did they ever do anything for us?" — the book says 45,000 French volunteers fought for American independence. "It was France that came to our aid at our darkest hour," the book says.

Common sense is the main theme.

"You don't have to love the French," the book reasons after comment 5. "But you don't have to hate them either. You might try to understand them."

Balbino Katz, the editor of a French history magazine, ran across the booklet at an attic sale two years ago. He bought it, translated excerpts and published them in his magazine, which drew the attention of book publisher Le Cherche Midi, he said.

"We're noticing today, with a bit of sadness, that Americans' prejudices about the French are the same today as they were back in '45," Katz said by telephone. He insisted he isn't anti-American and said Americans are wrong to think France is ungrateful for their sacrifices during the war.

Le Cherche Midi, in a prepublication statement, said: "It seemed important to us to reissue the veritable and true jewel that this practical manual is, distributed to GIs in France to answer all their questions about these strange 'Frenchies'."

More than 14,000 copies have been sold since it hit French bookstore shelves in June, according to Le Cherche Midi, and it made L'Express magazine's best-seller list for two weeks last month.

Frank Shirer, an archivist with the U.S. Army's Center for Military History in Washington, said the book, as a U.S. government publication, is not protected by any copyright laws. It was unclear how many copies were printed or how it was distributed, he said. It also wasn't clear exactly when it was published — 1945 or 1946.

The author's identity is unknown.

The quarreling over Iraq, declining U.S. tourism to France and calls for an American boycott of French products have alarmed many in this country and provoked some soul-searching.

"The accusations of many Americans against the French hit a sensitive nerve," Katz said by telephone. "Accusing us of cowardice, collaboration or lack of gratitude — it all has a grain of truth."

The book, he said, "soothes the French to think that some Americans can come to their defense."

Maybe Americans stand to learn something from the book, he added.

"The French government should republish it in English and give it as a gift to every American who comes to France," Katz said with a chuckle.