Relations between the U.S. and French governments have turned frosty since France took the lead in opposing American military intervention in Iraq. The French actions in the United Nations Security Council appear to have released a pent-up wave of francophobia or open contempt for everything French on the streets of the United States.
Cultural tensions have often flared between these two proud nations, with Americans and French both accusing the other of arrogance. But anti-French feelings across America are taking on a sharper edge.
The New York Post newspaper ran a doctored front page photo in which the heads of the French and German ambassadors to the United Nations had been replaced with the heads of weasels furry mammals synonymous with treachery and sneakiness. Radio disc jockeys in Atlanta offered listeners the chance to smash a Peugeot automobile with a sledge hammer. Almost nightly, late night television comedians are dredging up old jokes about supposed French effeteness and even cowardice. One that's making the rounds likens going to war without the French to hunting without an accordion. And Missouri congressman Roy Blunt began a Republican conference by asking how many Frenchmen it takes to defend Paris. The answer, which ignited much laughter: "It's not known; it's never been tried." Two Republican congressmen convinced the House of Representatives' cafeterias to change "French fries" on their menus to "Freedom fries," and "French toast" to "Freedom toast." Sofitel, a French hotel chain, nervously hauled down French flags flying in front of their 10 American properties and replaced them with U.S. state or city flags.
One of America's most popular political commentators, Bill O'Reilly, suggested that Americans vent their outrage by boycotting French goods. And among those listening and agreeing was Ken Wagner, who owns Roxy's, a popular restaurant and bar in West Palm Beach, Florida. So irked with the French was he, that he dragged every case of the restaurant's French wine and liqueur into the street and dumped the contents into the gutter.
"Do the French forget what happened at Normandy Beach and the Saint Lo in World War II, and in years before in the Argonne Forest [in World War I]? " he asked. "They forget all that and the fact that we instituted the Marshall Plan after World War II and really kept Europe afloat for several years before they could fend for themselves."
Mr. Wagner says he believes the French live with what he calls a "delusion" that they are world leaders.
"Everything they do is fine. They can fight in Algeria. They can get their butts kicked in Vietnam, and that's OK. But if anybody else does something, 'Oh, no, you can't do that,' " he said. "Unless they have instituted or thought of it first, they don't want it. They believe this must be the 17th Century again, and they have a great [naval] fleet, and they have everything else. But they don't."
French-bashing has hurt some businesses. The first week after Mr. O'Reilly's anti-French television tirade, sales at Mais Oui!, a store in Bellevue, Washington, that carries exclusively French home furnishings and French wine, dropped 50 percent, according to owner Molly Marking.
"So many people are saying, 'The French are this,' and 'The French are that.' And 'How dare they?' But we're not at war with the French," she said. " It's just misplaced patriotism. America is based on freedom of speech, and if that doesn't extend out to our allies, then what are we? If you're going to boycott everything French, then maybe you ought to make sure that nobody goes to the Statue of Liberty [which France gave the United States], and we'd better change 40 percent of our language because 40 percent of the English language is based on French. If you're going to get really small-minded about it, you can really go crazy over it."
Anti-French outbursts are upsetting to the leadership of the French-American Foundation, an organization in New York that brings together U.S. and French citizens for a variety of exchanges and study tours. Shanny Peer, a former professor of French culture, works with early childhood programs at the foundation. She says France has been a convenient scapegoat for those who have no patience for diplomacy. But she says it is better for the United States to have friends who will honestly tell you what they think than those who go along with everything you propose.
"I'm expressing my personal opinion here," she said, " but I think the Bush administration has been very reckless in its international diplomacy. This has put into question the Atlantic alliance. It's put into question the current and future role of the U.N. And I think the focus should not just be on the French-American relationship but also on the position of the United States in the international community. And I hope that that will not have been damaged irrevocably."
Shanny Peer says those who believe France's behavior in the U.N. Security Council was motivated by self-interest because it has significant trading interests with Iraq are missing a subtle point. Since U.S. intervention in Iraq seemed inevitable, she argues, a purely selfish France would have cravenly curried favor with the U.S. administration.
One scholar who has studied international diplomacy since the days of the 1978 Camp David accords is Joseph Montville, now a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He says it's ironic that so much anger is being directed at French president Jacques Chirac, a man who, as a student at Harvard University in Massachusetts, once scooped ice cream on Harvard Square. Mr. Montville says France knew it could not stop a war in Iraq, but could be the world's voice against what it sees as the U.S. government's unilateralist instincts.
"The relationship with France will be, I think, evaluated in the more complex context of seeing how we evaluate the consequences of the war," he said. "If the costs are high in human terms, the wisdom of the war will be more and more closely scrutinized."
When asked how he would assess the the depth of francophobia, he responded:
"I don't think it's going to take root. But I think we'll know a lot better after the war bills start coming in."
Lest Americans think they have a monopoly on hard feelings, French newspapers and commentators have likened the U.S. decision to send troops into Iraq to Adolf Hitler's assertion that his invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland were preventive measures. And there are just as many "cowboy" jokes in Paris as there are disparaging remarks about the "frogs" of France in the United States. But in a recent interview on British television, President Chirac insisted that long-term relations between France and the United States will not be damaged. He said the two countries' "deep roots go far beyond isolated events."