“THE game is over,” President Bush told Iraq on Thursday.
“It’s not a game, and it’s not over,” Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the French Prime Minister, shot back yesterday. Thus the war of words between dovish France and hawkish America grew more rancorous.
There are three men in the world who would be wise for reasons of personal safety not to show their faces in America: Osama bin Laden, President Saddam Hussein and M Raffarin’s boss, President Chirac.
Middle America, egged on by hostile television networks and editorial writers, has been whipped into a rage against what is perceived as betrayal by the vain and preening French or, as they are now being characterised, “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”.
France was rescued by America in both world wars, US commentators note as French obstructionist tactics at the United Nations thwart the campaign to get Saddam.
They mutter darkly about Germany’s anti-Americanism, but the vitriol has been almost exclusively directed at the French: the leader of the Franco-German “axis of weasel”.
“Let’s beat up the French,” the conservative co-host of CNN’s Crossfire programme declared on Thursday night. The audience cheered.
Later a viewer’s e-mail was flashed up on screen: “I understand that the French UN Ambassador was told to stop waving his hand in the air because it was inappropriate to surrender at the UN meeting.”
Bill Sammon, White House correspondent for the Washington Times, said: “The Administration has realised that writing off France is not a bad thing politically . . . I think it plays pretty well.”
The British journalist Christopher Hitchens summed up US feelings in The Wall Street Journal: “Chirac. . .is a monster of conceit. . .a man so habituated to corruption that he would happily pay for the pleasure of selling himself.”
France is shrugging off what the left-wing daily Libération labelled “le frog-bashing” as a manifestation of the primitive prejudices now prevailing in a country with which it has a long tradition of rivalry. Gallic commentators see America’s anger as proof that Paris must be doing something right. “It’s a little tiresome,” one French diplomat said. “The Americans always throw tantrums like this when they don’t get their way.” But what did hit home was the dismissal by Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, of France and Germany as “old Europe”.
The conservative Le Figaro noted that France had replaced Iraq as the obsession of the “pen-wielding war-mongers” of the White House. “The toughening of Washington’s position has confirmed the expected return to page one of an odious little character with a black beret, a cigarette in his mouth and baguette under his arm: France has not finished paying for the affront which it has inflicted on the muscular diplomacy of Uncle Sam,” it said.
The more outrageous gibes are a source of French amusement. M Chirac’s aides chuckled after Rush Limbaugh, a radio host, said that no one should trust a country with a Foreign Minister named Dominique de Villepin. With his aristocratic airs, the elegant M de Villepin is viewed even in France as a little hard to take.
The media have made much of the US tabloids’ dismissal of France with the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” insult. Le Figaro nicely translated the line, which comes from The Simpsons television cartoon, as: primates capitulards et tou-jours en quête de fromages.
The media have also been struggling to decode a now famous New York Post headline denouncing France and Germany as “The Axis of Weasel”. Le Figaro translated this as l’axe des faux jetons — literally “the axis of the two-faced”.
The French are distinguishing between “good” and “bad” Americans. The latter are written off as right-wing fans of “le cowboy Bush”, such as George Will, a columnist who wrote that France was performing “a manoeuvre which it has been perfecting since 1870: retreat”. Good Americans are anti-war Democrats, Hollywood stars and the think-tank experts who give sympathetic replies in impeccable French to the anti-American rants of listeners on French radio shows.
Copyright 2003 Times Newspapers Ltd.