The United States of America takes patriotism, and itself, very seriously indeed. A few days ago, the US House of Representatives circulated an official letter ordering restaurants in all the House buildings on Capitol Hill to remove French fries from their menus and put in “freedom fries” instead. This was formalized through a renaming ritual at one of these restaurants, overseen by two eminent congressmen. One of them described this order as a small, but “symbolic” expression of the congress’s displeasure with “France’s self-serving politics of passive aggression”. The logic behind this disappointment was spelt out, in equally laden terms, at this little ceremony. France has been watching from the sidelines as brave Americans put their lives on the line to ensure the freedom and security of others. It has enjoyed all the benefits of its alliance with the US, and all the US has received in return is a trade deficit and “a cry for help when their appeasement efforts fail”. Another legislator’s mind boggled at the ingratitude of the French, Belgian and German governments. If it were not for the heroism of American soldiers during World War II, “Hitler’s Third Reich would now be in its eighth decade”.
That such hostilities and sentiments should be associated with deep-fried potatoes — without a jot of irony or any sense of the ludicrous — is what will strike the more frivolous races across the pond as remarkable. Such earnestness could be endearing. In fact, it could even be America’s chief charm, had this whole business been confined only to French fries, toast, beans, mustard, horns, windows, kisses and letters. (During World War I, anti-German feelings turned sauerkraut into liberty cabbage, frankfurters into hot dogs and German measles into liberty measles.) But now there is the possibility of an actual war somewhere in the picture. This is serious business, making an immensely wealthy and powerful nation look at the rest of the world in ways which could completely change international relations. According to a recent poll, two-thirds of Americans are now in favour of using military force to disarm Iraq. Just over a half believe that the US should do this without the approval of the United Nations security council. At such a juncture in history, the long tradition of American anti-Europeanism begins to look a little less innocuous than its mirror image, European anti-Americanism. The stereotypical European is a wimp — hypocritically multilateral, secular, disunited and anti-Semitic. By contrast, Americans are the strong and principled defenders of freedom and the sovereign nation-state. In all this, the French are now getting the worst deal. A conservative “frog-basher” sums up the current American mood when he calls the French “cheese-eating surrender-monkeys”.
But not everybody thinks this way. Carrboro town council in North Carolina has declared April a “French trade month”, when residents will be encouraged to buy as many French products as they possibly can. They want to take Republican memory back to the 18th century. Were it not for the French, Americans would have lost the battle for independence against their now-close ally, Britain. A Carrboro alderman puts it simply, “We’re sick of all this anti-French stuff. It’s dumb.”