Frites de liberté

Europe | Many in France are fried about President Bush

Issue: "Terri Schiavo: In memoriam," April 9, 2005

PARIS - From "Freedom fries" to economic boycotts to not-so-subtle jabs in pop culture (see Ocean's Twelve), American distaste for all things French has grown considerably since President Jacques Chirac staunchly opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq. We are better than them, so the thinking goes, because we are spine-backed realists rather than naïve jellyfish.

But what do the French think of us?

In the Paris suburb of Vincennes last week, a middle-aged woman with a small dog named Dongo sat outside the Café Le Marigny, puffing a cigarette and sipping a cocktail. She smiled warmly and answered coolly when an American couple at a neighboring table struck up a casual conversation-mostly in English. "You are obviously American," she told the young husband, noting his layer of winter flab and his University of Texas Longhorns ball cap.

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Despite such plainly evident markers of often-maligned American culture, the woman remained cordial, speaking fondly of both America and Americans. Her sentiment reflects a majority outlook, according to the Pew Research Center's Global Opinion review released in January. Though down dramatically from 71 percent in 2002, a 2004 poll in the report found that 53 percent of French people maintain a favorable view of Americans. Anecdotal evidence of such favor is rampant at all Paris tourist traps, where American credit cards largely finance the city's primary industry.

Last week, a Florida couple paused to rest at one of many outdoor café tables along the world-famous Champs-Elysées. A well-tailored waiter with slicked-back dark hair served beer and cappuccino before politely suggesting the travelers stow their digital camera to avoid theft. Such helpful courtesy is common.

Whither, then, the widespread perception that all of France considers Americans a gluttonous lot of warmongering buffoons? Media sympathetic to anti-American zeal have not invented the anti-Bush sentiment. Douglas Nelson, pastor of a French Reformed church near Paris, says flatly, "People here do not like Bush." French evangelicals tend to be less anti-American but also anti-Bush: Their patently French commitments to pacifism and liberal politics trump nods to social conservatism.

Pew reports that a world-leading 82 percent of French people believe Mr. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as opposed to only 15 percent who believe he was misinformed. The French point to their low view of Mr. Bush as reason for fearing America's ever-growing hegemony.

But French disapproval of unchecked American power predates the Bush administration, originating with Charles de Gaulle's distrust of Franklin Roosevelt. Soon the French lexicon included a new word: hyperpuissance, meaning hyper-power. Since then, many in France have considered the United States a dangerous monopoly and have searched to find some measure of counterbalance in the world, perhaps through the ascendancy of the European Union.

Concerns (or covetousness) regarding American power remained strong even throughout President Clinton's eight years. Some among the French have long viewed America as narcissistic and arrogant, and outside the tourist centers that deep-felt resentment of America often bubbles over into the laps of Americans.

Kanterbräu restaurant in Langres, a small rural town 185 miles east of Paris, sits in the shadow of a 15-by-15-foot McDonald's billboard and fosters such anti-Americanism. When an American couple ordered one quiche for two last week, a middle-aged waitress mocked them, loudly proclaiming "Une quiche pour deux! Une quiche pour deux!" much to the delight and amusement of the entire restaurant.

The server relocated the couple from a nicely adorned table to cafeteria-style seating near the door, brought out the meal with only one fork, and moments later removed the dishes before the food was gone. When the husband asked with trembling humility for a check, the woman glared at him, threw up her hands in disgust, and stormed off muttering-never to return. She didn't even offer any frites de liberté.


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