At Brooklyn's Cafe Barbes, Vincent Douglas, the French co-owner, thinks U.S. resentment of his homeland "is well-deserved." "It's such a long, complicated history," observes Olivier Conan, Douglas' partner, who's also French but became a U.S. citizen five years ago. "A lot of people are not that far from Chirac's position" on the war, Conan says, "but they view the French as arrogant. And in a certain way, they're right."
Arrogant, unreliable and cowardly that pretty much sums up the way a lot of Americans feel about the French right now. They don't understand why President Jacques Chirac is backing away from the implications of U.N. Resolution 1441, a move most people in the U.S. think will only strengthen Saddam Hussein. People have taken to calling the French names, with "cheese-eatin' surrender-monkeys," a line taken from television's The Simpsons, being the current favorite. Soldier of Surrender, a parody of the Soldier of Fortune publication, is currently ricocheting around the Pentagon. Billed as "The Official Magazine of the French Military," it lists articles like "White Flags: New technology that could save your life!" and "Fitness: Three great exercises to help you keep your arms up longer!" Americans are having a laugh at the expense of the French, but the jokes stem from a long-simmering animus. In Champs Elysées cafés, it must be tempting to think of all this as just more jingoistic cretinism from the U.S. But this time it's serious. Many Americans feel betrayed by France.
"It has gone beyond the snickering phase," says Shepard Forman, director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. No one laughed when Senator John McCain, a Vietnam vet, slammed any thought of an Iraq containment policy by arguing that America does "not have reliable allies" to enforce it. France, he said, was dismissing "international law, world peace and the political ideals of Western civilization. Remember them? Liberté, égalité, fraternité." U.S. legislators are debating imposing trade sanctions on French products and some propose refashioning NATO to marginalize France. "This is pretty grim," admits former U.S. Ambassador to France Felix Rohatyn. "We had difficult times when I was ambassador, but what I see here is much more profound than that."
So where does the rancor come from? As the Soldier of Surrender spoof suggests, a lot of it dates back to World War II. "There's a deeply held feeling of: 'We liberated them. We saved their asses. If it wasn't for the U.S., the French would be speaking German now,'" says Forman. Americans feel that we fought and died for Europe in two world wars, helped rebuild economies, protected the democratic chunk of the Continent during the cold war and this is the thanks we get? We've been here before. In 1966, after Charles de Gaulle instructed President Lyndon Johnson that he wanted American troops withdrawn from his country, Johnson ordered Secretary of State Dean Rusk to fly back to Paris with a follow-up question: "Does your order include the bodies of American soldiers in France's cemeteries?"
But the current furor isn't all ancient history. World War II is seen as America's last unambiguous war, a true battle between good and evil. Many see the war against terrorism in that same light. America feels itself to be under attack, and French shenanigans at the U.N. are regarded as the desertion of a key ally in time of need. It's tough for Americans to listen to Chirac's lectures on morality when Secretary of State Colin Powell has produced what many regard as clear evidence of Iraq's perfidy, and anti-aircraft missile systems are being deployed around Washington in anticipation of an al-Qaeda attack. Even those Americans who are against a war in Iraq know better than to cite France in support of their cause.
It may surprise the French to learn that many Americans share their concerns about U.S. hyperpuissance. But what kind of puissance is France after? Opposing the U.S. out of principle isn't leadership. It's a kind of pussycat puissance petulant, annoying, and ultimately only a distraction. The French often accuse the U.S. of isolationism and unilateralism. But right now, a lot of Americans feel their government is looking out at the rest of the world and trying to make it safer for everyone. To them, it's the French who have turned inward, obsessed with their own status in the world and ignoring the threat from Iraq. And underneath it all we wonder, Would France put herself on the line if we needed her? I think we all know the answer to that, n'est-ce pas?