When President Bush was putting together his Coalition of the Willing — or, in some cases, the Coalition of the Not Very Willing but We Better Do It Not to Offend America — France was a notable nonstarter for the invasion of Iraq.
Although France sent troops to Afghanistan, this shrugging “non” was greeted on this side of the Atlantic with all the sympathy and understanding of a great nation — that is to say, with one thunderous Bronx cheer from sea to shining sea.
Everywhere under spacious skies the amber waves of grain swayed with the force of the collective American hissy fit. Those fromage-loving ingrates! This is what we get for saving their stylish butts in World War II? How dare they show national independence? We’ll show them!
And, mesdames and messieurs, we did show them. Our wrath burned to such childish extremes that french fries were renamed freedom fries in patriotically confused circles.
Some American grown-ups raised timid objections amid all the talk of surrender monkeys and disparaging references to French plumbing. Yes, the bidet does have its surprises and it’s been a while since a French victory in life’s military playoffs. But, hey, Napoleon wasn’t Monsieur Cut and Run, nor were the heroes of Verdun.
I remember saying as much to my vacationing in-laws up in the Adirondacks at the height of the anti-French feeling over Iraq. On a warm summer evening, my tongue loosened somewhat by alcoholic beverages, as sometimes happens, I made the mistake of observing that, despite their less-than-glorious motives in opposing the war with Saddam, the French were basically right — entering the Iraqi snake pit was folly.
Well, all the family turned on me as one and denounced me as the sort of perfidious fellow who would eat Camembert in bed. They said my supposed pals the French had the backbones of flaky croissants.
Now, I am not one to tell people I dearly love that I told you so in light of all that has happened since. Just for the record, however, I would like to deny the allegation that I eat Camembert in bed. (Brie, maybe.)
The amazing thing is that it seems France is back in America’s good books. Sure, some Americans still fondle their anti-Gallic grievances like security blankets but at least we no longer suffer political indigestion over french fries. We have grown up un peu.
I think this change of heart has something to do with France electing a new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is unbashedly pro-American despite all our French-bashing. He even spent a vacation this summer at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. President Bush et famille had him over for lunch in Maine, which was right neighborly.
But, for me, the real sign that le bon temps of Franco-American relations are rolling again is that my beloved family of erstwhile rabid French-bashers took a vacation over there last week, moi included. The visit was prompted by the oldest of four sisters and one brother turning 60. The rendezvous was Provence in the south of France.
The virtues of Provence are well-known, thanks and no thanks to Peter Mayle’s books, starting with “A Year in Provence.” Of course, he should have shut up. Writing literary love notes to lovely locales inevitably attracts tourists. Wearing shorts and popping gum in cathedrals, they descend like termites in ball caps to eat up the local charm.
Still, with le chat well and truly out of the bag, I can say that Provence is beautiful. The ancient villa we rented was set between a field of olive trees and vineyards heavy with fruit. Soaring Mount Ventoux, with its bald summit, which made me instantly fond of it, looked down upon the scene, which included the charming little village of St. Didier, where we ate our breakfasts of cafe au lait and baguettes.
The people were the greatest revelation. They seem not to have noticed we were mad at them. They were kind, pleasant and helpful — toujours. True, a couple of times, an international signal involving the finger was given in incidents concerning cars, but the traffic on a personal level of interaction was tres agreable.
This warm reception got me wondering whether our past grievances aren’t more like a family dispute. Like it or not, France and the United States are bound at the hip by history — they are our cousins and not always kissing cousins. Without France’s help in the American Revolution, October’s baseball heroes would be playing cricket. Mon dieu!
If we were a mature people — huh! — we might realize we made monkeys of ourselves in the great french fry fiasco when we should have been looking at the big picture and surrendering to our inner cheese of wisdom.
(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com.)