Americans Turn Eagerly to Gibes at the French

New York Times, February 15, 2003, by Felicia R. Lee

If people missed Dennis Miller's quip to Phil Donahue that the only way the French are going into Iraq "is if we tell them we found truffles in there," there was the St. Valentine's Day mock photograph on the cover of The New York Post that showed United Nations representatives from Germany and French as weasels.

Between cocking their ears for Code Orange alerts and negotiating lines for duct tape, many Americans have notably unleashed verbal vitriol at two old European allies that have challenged Washington on a war with Iraq. The acid is being flung at France in particular, because of its resistance to imminent military action.

American barbs against the French have a long history. Usually they mostly have to do with sex.

But just as a growing anti-American sentiment is being expressed in Europe these days, shown in anti-American signs at antiwar rallies in Germany and France and in nightclub comedy stand-up routines, so is Europe becoming a target of vitriol and black humor here.

So as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin of France clash at the United Nations, intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic muse about the gulf in these uneasy times between Western European and American ideas.

The common folk and pundits are telling off-color jokes and hinting at boycotts of wine and cheese. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, egged on his colleagues the other day to set higher health standards for importing French bottled water.

Listen to the jokes heard on sidewalks, the Internet and late-night television from hawkish politicians about their food, their timidity and their arrogance.

Question: What is the difference between Frenchmen and toast?

Answer: You can make soldiers out of toast.

Question: What do you call 10,000 Frenchmen with their arms up?

Answer: An army.

Or as Jay Leno of "The Tonight Show" said this week: "Well, it looks like we moved a step closer to war. Not with Iraq with France and Germany."

Even the derogatory term for the French "surrender monkey," coined on "The Simpsons" about eight years ago, is receiving a revival, and it was deconstructed last week in Le Monde.

Clifford D. May, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee who is now president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative group, said yesterday that he had collected e-mail messages that speak to a growing cultural and political divide. Most are jokes about the French.

"My impression is there is a lot of annoyance and anger, especially at the French," Mr. May, a frequent guest on radio talk shows, said. "I've heard people say, `That's it for me, no more foie gras.' "

In the Times Square subway station, many people were aware of the jokes that were making the rounds. In random interviews, opinion was split over whether the French and German were enemies or if it was politics as usual.

"There has always been a divide between the U.S. and Europe," said Kyle McCabe, 29, of Brooklyn, a film editor. "I'm hearing the sentiment. I was in a cafe and I overheard a conversation between a mother, father and son who has just flown in on Southwest Airlines. Their daughter was married to a German, and he apparently was always extolling the social welfare system there.

"They started talking about Iraq, and the father just exploded. He said we should just bomb them. Obviously, it's a very complicated issue."

Olaf Lawson, 31, who lives in Harlem and works as an offtrack betting clerk, said European caution was a expression of fear. The United States should rethink its alliances, Mr. Lawson said.

"They're scared," he added. "They're worried for their own people. They don't want war the way other people don't want war. But we should cut them off if they don't want to be behind us."

"If they're not willing to help us when we need them, after we've helped them in the past," he said with an irritated shrug, his voice trailing off.

Karol Ward, a psychotherapist who lives in Midtown Manhattan, said she feared that France and Germany were being scapegoated.

"Some of these countries are saying, `Slow down, what are you doing?' " Ms. Ward said. "This country was built on the freedom of speech that includes the opinions of other countries."

A more caustic American opinion can be gleaned from letters to the editor in newspapers. In The Birmingham News on Tuesday, among the letters about Iraq, George Singleton wrote, "History records many gutless wonder nations that watched while Adolf Hitler rose to power."

In Richmond, Va., Sean Murphy, 25, a restaurant cook, said he thought that the French and German proposals to delay a war were selfishly putting off the inevitable.

"The French are definitely being ungrateful," Mr. Murphy said.

Some politicians insisted that a similar feeling resonated with voters.

Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, was unsparing on Monday in a BBC interview.

"I said, `France is no longer a world power, Belgium never was, and Germany started two world wars,' " Mr. King recalled. The comments, he said, set off responses globally and more e-mail messages, letters and telephone calls from Americans than he had seen in years. The supporters expressed a resentment that Americans bailed out Europe in World War II, he said.

The anger, Mr. King added, is more visceral toward the French than the Germans.

"This ongoing struggle with terrorism could go on for 5, 10, 15 years," he said. "We're going to have to contend with France at every stage. Can we afford to have that or do we need to restructure the alliance?"

He said of France, "It seems to be part of their fiber to be anti-American."

If France keeps complaining about genetically modified American beef, he added, maybe the United States will do its complaining about cheese or wine. In Nashville, Steve Gill, host of a morning talk show at WWTN-FM, called for a boycott of French products.

"People have been pretty outraged at what they're seeing from the French, outrage that they've betrayed our trust in terms of being an ally," said Mr. Gill, whose "Steve Gill Mornings" is on 5:30 to 9 a.m. "We called for a boycott of all things French, from Perrier to Champagnes to wines and French w-h-i-n-e-s, French berets, French pastries. Because of St. Valentine's Day, we made an exception for French kissing."

A chic visitor from Marseille, who would not give her name as she passed through Times Square, wrinkled her nose over the nastiness directed toward her countrymen.

"It's just politics," she said, walking away with her head held high.