It's hard to remember sometimes that France and the United States actually are each other's oldest foreign friends.
French assistance was critical to the success of the American Revolution against Great Britain. In fact, if not for French help, we'd probably all be speaking English right now. We repaid the favor – most notably during the two world wars, when we twice helped the French drive out invading Germans.
Yet despite being there for each other when it mattered, Franco-American relations recently have gotten nastier than reheated Spaghetti-Os with franks. It's to the point that expressing disdain for France and French-ness has become an important staple of contemporary American politics.
On the list of idiotic things that constitute public political discourse in the U.S., frog-baiting is somewhere between promising to end "business as usual," and pretending you actually like the taste of the lousy diner food served in the small towns where you're campaigning.
You probably recall the "freedom fries" episode of 2003 – when two Republican congressmen ordered the House of Representatives cafeteria to rename French fries freedom fries to symbolically punish France for failing to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Around the same time, I reported from a pro-Iraq war rally in Atlanta where I saw a couple with a white poodle they'd dyed to red, white and blue. "There's no French in our Poodle" their sign read. Never mind that red, white and blue are also the colors of France's flag. Idiots.
And last year, a 2007 strategy memo leaked from Republican candidate Mitt Romney's campaign suggested that one way to defeat then Democratic frontrunner Sen. Hillary Clinton was to somehow rhetorically tie her to France. "Hillary = France" the memo said, as if the mere proximity of her name to the name "France" would somehow taint her.
The French aren't passive recipients of American hostility, though – they give as good as they take.
In 2004, then French President Jacques Chirac called the worldwide popularity of American culture a "catastrophe." And two years ago, Chirac walked out of a European Union meeting to protest that a Frenchman at the meeting was speaking English. He hates that English is now the world's lingua franca.
Anti-Americanism is strong in France. And not just the petty cultural kind either.
Since France regained its military and economic footing after World War II, successive French leaders have been uneasy with American dominance in Europe and around the world. The French believe American dominance keeps Europe dependent and, thus, subservient to the U.S.
In 1966, to protest U.S. dominance of NATO, France actually withdrew its forces from NATO's military command. Rather than be dependent on the U.S. for help, France has poured money into maintaining an independent military. France's nuclear arsenal is the world's largest after the U.S. and Russia's.
But judging by a steady stream of headlines over the past several months, it appears a page has been turned. The mutual resentment that has long characterized French-American relations seems to be abating.
France is transitioning itself back into NATO's military-command structure for the first time in 42 years. Its parliament backs a continued French presence in Afghanistan to fight off the Taliban.
The new French president, Nicholas Sarkozy, backs the U.S. position on Iran vis-a-vis its nuclear program. And Sarkozy has repeatedly expressed praise for what he characterizes as American economic dynamism. Even with the current market meltdown, U.S. unemployment is lower than France's.
Things have gotten so, um, normal between the nations that when Sen. Barack Obama visited Sarkozy in France and Sarkozy praised Obama to the U.S. media, Obama's poll numbers actually went up.
Some pissiness no doubt will continue. Millions of Americans still think the French are arrogant and smelly, and likewise millions of French think Americans are loud and fat.
With an Obama presidency likely (though not guaranteed, certainly), it looks like much of the animosity has passed. Meanwhile, freedom fries have gone so cold and limp that nobody's eating them.
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