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American Times: Washington DC: Ungrateful Americans indulge their prejudices by `bashing the Frogs'

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A NEW set of advertisements has just appeared on Washington's city centre bus shelters, brazenly exploiting one American prejudice in the hope of overcoming another. What is being promoted is a particular brand of Californian wine - Clos du Bois, a mid-priced label of reliable quality that is trying to expand its market.

With Prohibition just within living memory and the zealous campaigners of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) lurking behind every lobbyist, advertising alcohol of any variety, even table wine, can be difficult. That Clos du Bois is advertised at all is calculated to raise some Southern eyebrows. But Clos du Bois and its advertising agency have produced a master stroke.

"Clo Dew Bwah", shouts one of the hoardings, above a photograph of a giant bottle of chardonnay; "Tray Sheek!" "Clo Dew Bwah - Magna feek", screams another. The small print beneath, after insisting that it doesn't matter says: "From Sonoma County. Not France."

Yes, they are playing the anti-French card - and Americans, who seem to have as much of a periodic need to "bash the Frogs" as the British, are happily indulging their prejudice. Small matter that the United States owes to the French the genesis of its Republican idea, its Statue of Liberty and even, thanks to Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the street layout and architectural ensembles of its national capital. Any chance to annoy the French by playing the crass Yank is grasped with gusto; the roots of American resentment run deep.

Just how deep was demonstrated over the weekend by the right-wing columnist Charles Krauthammer, who used his Thanksgiving Holiday newspaper column to give thanks for not being born French (as he might well have been, he wrote, given that both his parents were French citizens, and his first language was French). One of the fierier writers in contemporary American journalism, Mr Krauthammer accused the hapless French of living off "fantasies of its lost grandeur" and spending the past half century making their land into "the great Western dissenter to American greatness". And that was just for starters.

He went on to lambast the French for calling his country "a single hyperpower", for depicting it as Rambo in the Guignols (their version of the Spitting Image puppet show), and for wishfully forecasting the imminent end of America's "unipolar world". "Oh to have been born to a nation that at the time of its great revolution produced a Madison instead of a Robespierre," exulted Mr Krauthammer; to have been born to a republic that produced Lincoln instead of the "comical Napoleon III"; and to have been born "to a people that were fighting in on the Nazis rather than out on the Allies".

While at the extreme end of American Francophobia, sentiments similar to those spat out by Mr Krauthammer with his Thanksgiving turkey bones are never far from the surface of American discourse. Nor is it hard to understand why.

In so many ways, the French are everything the Americans, at least today's Americans, are not - and vice versa. The essence of France, as the French might see it, is refinement and reason.

The essence of America is size, practicality and a singular brand of freedom. On such basics as money and self, the two nations could not be further apart. Americans want a bargain; the French expect to pay for quality. The French prize discretion in all things, except perhaps in singing the praises of France; few Americans rate discretion a virtue.

Yet for so many Americans what is French - from food to wine to dress to service - is also the acme of style and class, and that infuriates them. It infuriates them that this should still be so after all these years; it infuriates them that while money can buy French products, it cannot buy French approval. And it surely grates, at the end of the "American century", that the champagne must be French if the new millennium is to be greeted comme il faut.

Back in the world of advertising, a pair of television commercials underlines the point. A new American advert for the oil conglomerate Conoco shows a lean and mean "fast cat" whizzing up, down and around the obstacles to find, and finish, a bowl of milk that belongs by rights to a langorously beautiful Persian blue. Agility, speed, innovation is what the Conoco "fast cat" is all about - and, of course, winning. A similarly luxuriant Persian blue used to star in a French television commercial for "gourmet" cat food, and the lesser cats looked on as he made his choice from the 30-odd flavours on offer. No "fast cat" he - and no American either.

Mary Dejevsky