This Time, the French-U.S. Bickering Is Serious

Times Staff Writer

The French have watched the war of words unfold with a mix of concern, anger and amusement: jibes about cheese-eating surrender monkeys, threatened boycotts of their wine and water, the renaming of fries and toast.

The hostility almost makes an invasion seem imminent. Except this is Paris, not Baghdad. And France and America are supposed to be friends.

The French leadership of the movement against war in Iraq has caused a ferocious backlash. The Bush administration has warned about real damage to the alliance. Paris is listening: The newspaper Liberation devoted its lead story Wednesday not to Iraq, but to the sudden "Cold War" between France and the United States.

The transatlantic couple have fought before. The two-century marriage has endured snarls, spats and furniture-throwing brawls. It's the kind of love-hate relationship that never quite achieves the satisfaction of either extreme.

This time, though, there's serious talk of a divorce. While the French-bashing has stirred longtime anti-American instincts here, some French politicians and people on the street are saddened. They wonder if the whole mess could have been averted.

"Anti-Americanism has a long history in France as a discourse, mainly among the elite, that was essentially an intellectual exercise," said Philippe Roger, author of "The American Enemy," a chronicle of anti-Americanism here. "It was not passionate.

"But this Gallo-phobia in the United States is new, more emotional. It doesn't have the same history. You wonder if the fracture this time will be lasting. There has been a symmetry to the rhetoric on both sides; it always returns to a question of ingratitude."

Roger sees a "violent paradox": The United States "has fought wars against just about every major European power except France. Our alliance dates back to the American Revolution. So does a catalog of accusations, misunderstandings, stereotypes and grudges that we never got completely out of our system."

As early as the French Revolution, there were complaints in France that the United States had not responded to its cause the way the Marquis de Lafayette helped George Washington a few years earlier.

In the 1930s, the U.S. was upset because of France's failure to pay debts from World War I. Decades later, the determinedly independent course charted by Gen. Charles de Gaulle led to a French pullout from the military structure of NATO in 1966, perhaps the low point in the alliance before now.

Yet during the Cuban missile crisis, De Gaulle waved away an aide to President Kennedy offering to show the general satellite photos of Soviet missiles on the island. De Gaulle declared that Kennedy's word was good enough for him: The Americans could count on France to stand beside them.

The bickering became a ritual, but the premise persisted that the two nations would be there for each other in times of true danger. The Iraq crisis, however, created a fundamental split over the definition of danger in a post-Cold War world.

Especially after Sept. 11, the Bush administration saw Iraq as a direct threat to U.S. national security. The government of President Jacques Chirac felt that Washington was responding emotionally rather than rationally.

Two increasingly divergent mind-sets had finally collided: an impatient willingness to confront problems with force on the American side versus an intellectualized, cautious reliance on international bureaucracy on the French side.

Hence the collapse of diplomacy. For some French intellectuals, the anti-French tirades accompanying the decision to attack Iraq confirm their worst suspicions about America, whose current government "incarnates almost everything that Europe rejects," in the words of Pascal Boniface, director of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations here.

"Since Sept. 11, the United States [has] a sentiment of vulnerability mixed with that of a hyper-power," Boniface said in an interview in Liberation. "Any opinions that are not in their line become dissident and 'those who are not with us are against us.' But why take it out so much on France when its leaders merely represent an opinion spread around the world? More than a transatlantic crisis, this is a crisis between America and the rest of the world. The United States is less and less liked. It is often doubted, even hated."

At the street level, though, the French bashing was initially met with purse-lipped Gallic restraint, tinged with satisfaction about stirring up so much attention, according to Roger.

"The sentiment was, 'There go the Americans, losing their cool,' " Roger said. "But now there is a malaise. The anti-Americans feel vindicated. But there is also concern, a new discussion at the intellectual level, over whether we wanted to break up the friendship over Iraq."

The host of a call-in radio show about current events reports a similar shift, especially among older listeners for whom the United States still evokes the heroic image of GIs charging ashore on D-Day. They worry about the economic and political repercussions.

"It's not a majority, but there are more listeners who think the French government may have gone too far," said Christophe Hondelatte, host of the program on the RTL network.

On the other hand, he said some listeners -- especially French Muslims -- sound more anti-American than ever. Polls show vast support for Chirac, who insists that France remains a friend of the U.S. Seventy percent of respondents in one survey this month said they loved Americans but opposed military action in Iraq.

Some observers predict that relations will recover once the emotions subside and combat ends in Iraq. For the moment, the French and the Americans can resign themselves to a relationship that suggests hate is closer to love than indifference.

The Iraq crisis, at least, has disproved stereotypes on both sides: Sometimes, the French do not back down. And a lot of Americans can find France on a map.

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