Manhattan transfer

The French tourist board has just drafted in Woody Allen to persuade the people of America to forgive the 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys' of France. But it may take more than a few jokes to counter the antipathy
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The war is over. Now the rapprochement can begin. Last week at the G8 meeting in Evian, France, with the fight to oust Saddam Hussein having been completed, hostility and nastiness between the US and the French seemed to be over. George Bush and the French President Jacques Chirac were seen smiling and shaking hands, and the ever-thoughtful President Bush even made a gift to his host of three books on Native American culture. "I know there are a lot of people in both our countries wondering whether or not we can actually sit down and have a comfortable conversation," he said. "And the answer is, absolutely. We can have disagreements, but that doesn't mean we have to be disagreeable to each other."

But perhaps the rapprochement is not complete. Perhaps the lingering doubts about the "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" - a phrase made popular by the right-wing National Review magazine - are still troubling the diplomats and officials who like to think of themselves as America's oldest ally.

It certainly seems that way. This week it was revealed that in an act that smacks just a little bit of desperation, the French authorities have hired a quartet of American stars to feature in a new advert commissioned by the country's tourism officials. Woody Allen, Robert de Niro, the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and the writer and actor George Plimpton will star in a short promotional film designed to encourage the sour Americans to let bygones be bygones and lure them to France this summer. The film is entitled - suitably enough - Let's Fall in Love Again.

"I don't want to have to refer to my French-fried potatoes as freedom fries and I don't want to have to freedom-kiss my wife when I really want to French-kiss her," the award-winning director Allen says on the film. "Recently, there has been a lot of controversy between these countries, and I would hope that they can put all that behind them, that no one will be petty and that we can forget our differences."

The reference to freedom fries is pertinent. If there was any one thing that summed up the madness and hysteria of it all, the sheer sense of lunacy that seemed to hang in the air like a French perfume, it was the response to a timely but otherwise unremarkable act of marketing by a small burger bar in North Carolina, where they flip the patties in front of the customers at the counter.

"We had been speaking to a teacher at the local high school about how they changed the name of some of the foods during the First World War," recalled Neal Rowland, owner of Cubbie's restaurant in Beaufort. "Sauerkraut was renamed liberty cabbage, frankfurters became hot dogs and hamburgers became freedom steaks."

So, back in February, when anti-French sentiment was spreading across the US in response to Paris's stance against the war with Iraq, Rowland decided to rename Cubbie's French fries freedom fries, and a small but telling footnote to the history of French and US relations was born. Overnight, restaurants across the country were following suit: Republicans ensured that the three cafeterias on Capitol Hill in Washington also listed freedom fries on the menu (conveniently ignoring the origin of the word "menu"), and even on the presidential jet, Air Force One, journalists were served soggy freedom toast for breakfast.

Woody Allen is perfect for the role of matchmaker between the Americans and French. As was pointed out elsewhere, at the conclusion of his most recent film Hollywood Ending - in which he plays a blinded film director unable to properly edit his film, which becomes a cult hit in France - he says: "Here I'm a bum, there I'm a genius. Thank God the French exist."

Of course, amid all the talk of freedom-loving French fries and Woody Allen jokes, it is easy to forget just how fraught relations between France and America were earlier this year, as deadlock set in at the UN over the notorious second resolution that would have given Britain and the US the explicit right to use force to oust Saddam, and over France's threat to use its veto power to block any such move.

But on 14 February, when a furious Secretary of State Colin Powell was all but ambushed on the floor of the UN Security Council by the French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, who called for an extension of the UN weapons inspectors' role and declared that France would "never cease to stand upright in the face of history", relations between the two countries descended to a low not seen for decades.

Indeed, perhaps not since 1966, when Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from Nato's military organisation and demanded that US troops leave France immediately, had relations been so sour. (On that occasion, in a retort that called to mind the countless Americans lost at Omaha Beach and elsewhere during the Normandy landings, the then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk asked dryly in response to De Gaulle's request: "Does that include the dead Americans in military cemeteries as well?")

"Back [in February] it really was very poisonous and aggressive," recalled one Western diplomat based at the UN in New York, who was involved in the Security Council negotiations. "After 20 January [when France used a counter-terrorism session to chastise America] it got very personal."

A spokeswoman for the French mission at the UN insisted that relations between the diplomats in New York always remained cordial. "The basic job of a diplomat is to negotiate. Your job is to discuss things," she said. But French diplomats in Washington felt they were besieged. The ambassador, Jean-David Levitte, complained that deliberate misinformation had been started by elements within the Bush administration that accused France, among other things, of supplying nuclear materials to Iraq.

In an open letter addressed to Congress and the media, he wrote: "The methods used by those propagating this disinformation have no place in the relationship between friends and allies, who may disagree on important issues, but should not engage in denigration and lies."

And it was not just at senior levels of government that antipathy to the French was spreading. No matter that the US had used its veto within the Security Council on many more occasions than France ever had, ordinary Americans felt as though France had betrayed them.

France's crucial role in supporting the US in its Revolutionary war against Britain was quickly and conveniently forgotten, and tasteless jokes about France's failure to defend Paris in the Second World War abounded. There were efforts to introduce legislation that would have prevented any French companies being given US funds to help in the reconstruction of Iraq, and French products undoubtedly suffered during the Iraq conflict.

The Federation of Wine Exporters held a crisis meeting in March to find ways to persuade Americans not to swap their French merlot for Spanish rioja. One New York wine distributor reported sales down $500,000 (£300,000) in one month alone. A reputable news website published a list of French companies to boycott, with everyone from Alcatel to Maybelline to Wild Turkey bourbon as targets, while a Weber Shandwick survey in April suggested that 43 per cent of Americans were now less likely to buy French products than before Chirac's pronouncement.

The overall effect of anti-French feeling in the US will not be known until the end of the year, but clearly the authorities are mindful of a dip in the value of French exports to the US - in 2002 the figure was a not-to-be-sniffed-at $28bn (£17bn).

(On the other hand, those in the US opposed to the war seemed to cling to all things French. Florence Lebourg, of Washington's Bistrot du Coin restaurant, remembered how, during the crisis, "a group of clients told me that they had come on purpose to stock up on French products in order to support us".)

At the heart of the dispute over Iraq were several factors, not least France's belief that it was taking a principled stand and that Saddam Hussein could be disarmed without the need to go to war. But most observers felt that France was also continuing a tradition of trying to forge its own path, independently of the US.

"The situation in 1966 was both different and similar," said Jacqueline Grapin, the president of the European Institute, a Washington-based public policy group specialising in transatlantic relations. "On both occasions the US did not understand the French position. They never understood it in 1966 and they never understood it in 2003. But years [afterwards] they realised that France might have done the right thing [in 1966] and [the former US Secretary of State] General Alexander Haig even said so. Now there are many people saying what the French were saying earlier this year - asking for proof that there were weapons of mass destruction, questioning whether Iraq was really a threat to the rest of the world and whether Iraq was really linked to al-Qa'ida.

"[The relationship between France and the US] has always been prickly, but France is France and that is what is difficult for other nations, especially the US. They speak French, not English, and they think French. They have principles - a search for peaceful solutions is one of them, as is making sure [that the international community is involved]."

Ironically enough, it is conflict that is drawing France and the US back together, back towards a civil but never entirely warm relationship. To start, there is the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. France's experience in the Middle East, and Bush's new focus on the so-called "road map" means the two countries are likely to develop a closer working relationship.

Last week in Evian, before Mr Bush left for his Middle East meetings with Arab leaders and his summit with Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Bush spoke with Chirac, seeking his support and insight. "We fully support President Bush's efforts on the road map," said Natalie Loiseau, a spokeswoman for the French Embassy in Washington. "President Chirac shared his views and he also talked about the situation in Lebanon and Syria. We will do what is possible."

But the greatest irony is perhaps that it is Iraq - the topic that made them so famously fall out - that is now helping Washington and Paris make up like tearful and regretful lovers standing on some bridge over the Seine. Last month the Security Council voted 14-0 (with Syria not attending the vote) to pass Resolution 1483, lifting sanctions and effectively accepting the US and British occupation.

While there were criticisms of the initial draft of the resolution, the passing of 1483 re-involves the UN - and therefore France - in the future of Iraq. For Chirac - ever a pragmatist - offering France's support to the resolution was clearly the wisest way forward if he was to build bridges with the notoriously grudge-bearing Bush.

Most observers believe the worst is over and that Paris and Washington are getting back to how things were at the start of the year, before the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's off-hand remark, which described France and Germany as "old Europe", initiated the face-off.

Grapin said she believedthat recognition by both sides of the need to co-operate on key international issues would smooth ruffledfeathers. "They realise that they have to work together on the Middle East," she said. "This helps a lot."

But not everyone is persuaded. Down in North Carolina, the French have not been given a reprieve - at least, not at Cubbie's, where the owner has no plans to change the name of his now world-famous freedom fries. "They will be called that forever."

So what do the French think of the Americans?

Of the 10 top-grossing movies in France in the past three months, eight are American. The queues for the McDonald's on the Champs-Elysées are as long as ever (and not all the customers are tourists). Ageing US television programmes fill the main French TV channel. In France, Columbo is still a prime-time star.

Anti-Americanism undoubtedly exists in France and it has, not surprisingly, been compounded by the war of insults surrounding the conflict in Iraq. But the French (unlike the Americans it seems) know how to keep politics in perspective. Just because the Parisian elite is squabbling with the Washington elite, it does not mean that everyone should stop eating Big Macs or watching Hollywood movies.

There have been half-hearted attempts to organise French counter-boycotts of American products but they have not gone very far.

The virulence of the American reaction against France has startled the French precisely because it has been so visceral and so widespread, among ordinary people as well as in some parts of the media.

Anti-Americanism exists in all countries, but French anti-Americanism is unusual because it exists on both the Right and the Left. There was much consternation during the Iraq war - including in France - when an opinion poll suggested that almost one in three French people wanted Saddam Hussein to win. The figure was startling until you added together the scores for the Anti-American Far Left and the Anti-American Far Right in the last French elections - this also came to nearly 30 per cent.

The vast majority of French people have a vague suspicion of the US (reinforced by the war and some of what has happened since) but it is wrong to think of them as a nation boiling with anti-Yankee feeling, fuelled by envy, and a sense of superiority, intertwined with a sense of inferiority. All those things exist in France - as they do in Britain - but so does a grudging admiration of the US and an avid appetite for American culture, from Mickey Mouse to Eminem.

John Lichfield