I think that the French are only depicted as "weak" or "coward" in the USA. This is probably some state propaganda to divert the attention from internal problems by criticising another country. Now that you mention it, it reminds me of the way the Japanese like to make fun of, or criticise China. In both cases it is due to a more or less unconscious complex of inferiority (at least one that people are not ready to admit).
I don't see how France could be seen as "weak" when it is the most politically dominant country within the European Union. Even Germany, that has a bigger population and economy, usually binds to French decisions (well, maybe French politicians are smooth talkers ).
Yesterday again we saw France take command of the UN troops in Lebanon. Bush was grateful for that, as he knew his budget couldn't afford to deploy more troops there for the moment. Most of the time France is clearly more active and influential on the international scene than bigger countries like Japan, China, India, Russia or Brazil. I don't know how that fits in the American view of "just simply the weakest or most cowardly in the world", when it is rather one of the most powerful nation on earth. Contrarily to Britain, Germany, Italy or Japan, France is the only major power allied to the USA who is not afraid of harshly criticising US policies when they disagree. Maybe that explains the anti-French propaganda in the US. There is maybe only one other country in the world that can tell the US to f*ck off : China. Let me remind you that France's population and economy is 5x smaller than the US... France appears as disproportionately strong for its size.
France also had the 2nd largest empire ever (after Britain) in world history, and I believe that the "oh so powerful" USA nowadays still envy that title to France (if not ordinary folks, at least some imperialist or militarist politicians). France has not had a reputation for being "soft" on the colonised populations in the late 19th and 20th century (before that it was better than other European colonial power). Just look at the way they massacred Algerian separatists in the 1960's. The UK was generally much less violent in its late colonial approach.
But maybe Americans see the French as cowards because they expected them to do all the job in fighting the Brits during the American war of independence, or because Napoleon just sold off 1/3 of the present USA to the young and weak American government, when reason would have commanded to use this as a base to reconquer the former British colonies instead of attacking Russia, Prussia, Austria and Britain (each more populous and much more militarily powerful than the USA at the time) all at the same time !
I know that many Americans like to make fun of France for its momentarily weakness in WWII. But you have to understand that Europe was devasted by WWI and people just didn't want to pointlessly fight anymore (as WWI was all about pointlessly dying for your country, without anything to gain but some vague "glory"). France was actually quite clever not to resist to Hitler's troops because the government knew they were not prepared and would loose anyway. They avoided unnecessary casualties. But France was far from the only one to give up without much fighting. All of Europe did (well, the half that wasn't allied to Nazi Germany) except Britain and communist Russia. As a result both countries suffered much more material damage and casulaties. I think American just do not realise how powerful Nazi Germany was. After all they fought against half of Europe, including what was still the world7s two biggest empires (Uk and France), against the USSR and the USA. The USA didn't even manage to fight the USSR properly during the Cold War. If Hitler was powerful enough to give serious problems to the USSR, USA and UK combined, how could neighbouring France, just across the Rhine, recovering from WWI and disabused by war, do anything ? Nevertheless the Gernan occupation of France was only partial (about half of the country) and French people suffered much much less than Eastern Europeans, because the Germans were attracted (if not fascinated) by France. I believe that the French chose wisely to let German troops in after 18 days of fighting, as they preserved the country's historic heritage and many lives. Taking that decsion would have taken much more courage than one would think.
I am appalled by so much ignorance. The French won WWI without ever surrendering. Most of the fighting of WWI took place in France, and more French people died than any other Entente country. Talk about cowards, the Americans didn't even join the war until it was almost finished. If you look at WWI casualties you will see that France has lost 1,415,800 people (+ 4,266,000 wounded) in the war against 126,000 (+234,300 wounded) for the USA. Almost laughable contribution of the US, thank you. Romania and Serbia lost respectively 3 and 4 times more men in WWI than the USA.One joke that has been going the rounds and sticks in my mind is about the recent opinion that some think the world has now entered the beginnings of a World War -- i.e. WWIII. However, the humorous reply to that is,
"Nonsense! It isn`t a World War until the French surrender."
It is only once you understand that about a third of the male population of France under 50 years old was either killed or wounded in WWI that it becomes clear why the French people didn't want the same to happen all over again 20 years later.
Yet France did suffer more casualties (including civilians) in WWII than the so proud USA, who again came when the enemy was very weakened (by the USSR and internal revolts within occupied Europe). Again, who are the cowards who always show up when they are sure to win. The USA has always chosen to participate in wars in which they were sure to win, either because the enemy was exhausted, or because the enemy was so much smaller and weaker militarily (e.g. Panama, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq...). The only exception is Japan (well it was only half the size of the US population-wise and less advanced technologically...), but that was because they were attacked.
That is by hearing such "American jokes" about France that Europeans have such a low opinion of Americans (especially their knowledge of history).