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U.S., France savor the taste of warmer ties

Sarkozy's enthusiasm for things American has begun to rub off on his countrymen. A film about a Parisian rodent has added some spice.

August 23, 2007|Devorah Lauter | Special to The Times

PARIS — The leader of the most powerful nation in the world can't wait to have a cookout in Maine, complete with hot dogs and blueberry pie, for the new president of France. "Freedom fries" have regained their rightful name. And American children have become familiar with the word "ratatouille" thanks to a film about a lovable French rat who can cook better than most humans.

Either food is the key factor in geopolitical relations, or Americans have changed their minds about France. Or both.

"After hatred, it's head-over-heels love -- especially for Sarko l'Americain," proclaimed Le Monde newspaper, using a frequent nickname for pro-American President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Although pro-American sentiment appears to be slowly surfacing on this side of the Atlantic as well, there is still ambivalence about getting too close to the United States. It's partly because of disagreements over the war in Iraq, but also because of fundamental questions the French are asking about their own future. The French are eager for change, but they also fear U.S.-style capitalism.

One expert calls the condition "French schizophrenia." America's image in France sometimes aggravates this syndrome, contributing to worries that cafes will succumb to Starbucks.

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'Freedom fries'

Just four years ago, differences over Iraq bruised a centuries-old friendship. The Bush administration felt betrayed when then-President Jacques Chirac refused to support the U.S.-led war. Americans dumped French wine into gutters and indignant congressmen renamed French fries "freedom fries."

In France, McDonald's restaurants were defaced and anti-American protests compared Bush to a Nazi.

Guillaume Ziccarelli remembers the tension. The 30-year-old Parisian, who worked at a French restaurant in Manhattan, describes incidents in which hecklers threw open the restaurant door, demanded a plate of "freedom fries," then turned around and walked out.

"It was such a joke," Ziccarelli said, "but also, kind of hard to take. You know, I was upset about the Twin Towers too. I went and lit candles. I was like an American."

But this month, White House spokesman Tony Snow made the rapprochement official, declaring, "It looks like we're on the verge of a new era of relations with the French."

Philippe Moreau Defarge, a research fellow at the French Institute of International Relations here, said, "This is a moment of relief -- a time for reconciliation. Because the U.S. is now in a different situation. It is clear to the U.S. that they made a mistake going to Iraq."

Not only do Americans seem less arrogant to the French, but the celebration of the French capital and its cuisine in "Ratatouille" makes many French think that Americans now have their priorities straight.

The film was a hit when it opened in France this month with its fairy tale about a rat who goes from the gutters -- literally -- to a moment of inspiration on a rooftop overlooking the sparkling cityscape, and finally to a top restaurant where he becomes head chef.

"It makes me happy," said film critic Gilles Ciment, who interpreted the film as a "gesture of reconciliation" from the American Pixar Animation Studios, owned by Walt Disney Co.

In a French poll taken right before Sarkozy grabbed lunch with the Bush family Aug. 11, 64% of respondents told the Ifop polling firm that they were happy with the work their president was doing, thus brushing aside the notion that he might be punished for breaking bread with the unpopular American president.

In the same poll, 33% said they would like the French-American relationship to get closer, 40% thought it should stay as it is "right now," and 26% felt that the two countries should keep their distance.

Last year, Sarkozy's first informal meeting with Bush sparked some predictions that it would hurt him in the presidential race. But he has continued to express admiration for the American work ethic and broke with tradition when he chose the U.S. as the first summer vacation destination of his term. He is also considered an unabashed "Atlanticist" because he favors market-oriented economic reforms.

That is not always a good thing in France, especially because of a persistent "fatigue with the Bush administration," political analyst Nicole Bacharan said.

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Globalization

The tighter bond with the U.S. is still cause for some concern. That has a lot to do with what journalist Emma Vandore describes as a national "identity crisis" in her recent book, "French Schizophrenia." The French are "a people desperate for change and increasingly scared of the future," Vandore said. For many, too much "modernization" through further liberalizing of the market, for example, threatens to wipe out their culture and protective social model.

"The globalized world fits badly with France's state-centric model," Vandore said. The government can no longer "guarantee that jobs won't shift out of the country, that there won't be some instability."

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