In 2003 and 2004, prior to the swift-boating and the widespread criticism of his wife, Senator John Kerry's opponents attempted to discredit and defeat him by drawing attention to his French relatives, and referring to him as "French-looking." Rush Limbaugh got a big kick out of calling the junior senator from Massachusetts and Vietnam veteran "Jean Cheri." The Republican National Committee issued a fact sheet that mentioned Kerry's French cousin. Editorials in the Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times, and The Wall Street Journal contained similar pot shots. Now, when I think back to the reasons Kerry may have lost his bid for the presidency in 2004, the "new thing... that John Kerry looks French" (as Cokie Roberts put it back then) doesn't rank very high on my list.
I like liberty, democracy, Thomas Jefferson, champagne, crepes, and Louis Vuitton. I've been to France--three times--and not just to Paris, but to the pastoral south of France, where every local business closes after lunch so that its proprietors and employees can enjoy a satisfying siesta. The cuisine lacks the chemical preservatives found in nearly every box, bag, can, or jar of American-made food. A perfect breakfast is a giant flaky croissant spread with thick, sticky jam, accompanied by a delicious hot chocolate made with fresh, whole milk. If you happen to be sitting on a terrace overlooking the vineyards of Provence, all the better.
So when self-declared patriots who cling to symbols like the Statue of Liberty ("a gift of friendship from the people of France [in 1886] to the people of the United States and... a universal symbol of freedom and democracy," according to the National Park Service) and claim to revere our founding fathers (including Thomas Jefferson, who once declared, "Every man has two countries: his own and France") tore down John Kerry for "looking French," I was confused. Just as I was confused when, during the course of the 2008 campaign, John McCain refused to say whether he'd welcome the prime minister of our ally Spain to the White House if elected. "Honestly, I have to analyze our relationships, situations and priorities, but I can assure you that I will establish closer relationships with our friends, and I will stand up to those who want to harm the United States," was el Maverick's response.
All that is in the past. For in President Obama, we have elected a man with respect for the multi-faceted history of our democracy, for the many cultures of our world, with an aim of restoring our global reputation. He welcomes shaking hands with those willing to "unclench their fists."
In doing some digging, I find numerous resources indicating that Americans who dislike France do so because they fell the French were not grateful enough for us "saving their butts" in World Wars I and II. How quickly we forget that, whatever their motivation, they "saved our butts" in the Revolutionary War that yielded our own nation's independence from Britain. Even though he disagreed with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in 2006, current French President Nicolas Sarkozy scolded Frenchmen who openly criticized the U.S.: "It is bad manners to embarrass one's allies or sound like one is taking delight in their troubles." Touche.
Despite his conservative platform, Sarkozy has expressed enthusiasm at Obama's election. "We are eager for him to get to work so that with him we can change the world," he said on Inauguration Day. But he is a realist: "I think we should not expect him to immediately solve all America's problems, nor ours. Barack Obama does not have a magic wand."
Magic wand or not, Obama does appear to have a magic touch (and quick wit) when it comes to diplomacy. On a summer 2008 visit to France, "Mr. Obama quipped that Mr. Sarkozy was responsible for Americans 'calling French Fries French Fries again'" (NY Times).
Under President Obama, respecting and embracing France is "très cool" once more.