PARIS -- U.S. diplomats here respond to Jacques Chirac's continued Yankee-bashing following George W. Bush's re-election by saying the French president is out of step with his people, who are not nearly that anti-American. But thoughtful Frenchmen believe President Chirac is mining a deep vein of sentiment among fellow citizens that transcends President Bush.
During a week in Paris, I encountered none of the rudeness I had been warned to expect because of my nationality. However, the question goes beyond amenities to visitors. One French intellectual described anti-Americanism to me as "a cancer that is sweeping across the country." It may not be as deadly as cancer, but it surely is not healthy for France.
The chronic nature of French hostility toward the United States contradicts claims by Bush's domestic critics that his unilateral policies caused deterioration of Franco-American relations. It is less the U.S. with a French problem than France burdened with a serious American problem.
On his recent visit to London, Chirac pressed for "multipolarity": a return to international rivalries that produced the carnage of the 20th century. He also suggested there was no point trying to repair his country's difficulties with Washington and taunted British Prime Minister Tony Blair because "our American friends" do not "pay back favors." Mocking Donald Rumsfeld's designation of France as "Old Europe," he pretended not to remember the secretary of defense's name and referred to him, sarcastically, as "that nice guy of America."
State Department officials thought Chirac would reach out to Washington once Bush was re-elected, and U.S. diplomats here say he has misread French opinion. On the contrary, playing the anti-American card is seen in political circles here as Chirac's strongest position as he prepares to run for a third five-year term in 2007. He is unpopular, detested by the Left and considered an apostate on the Right, but may survive by bashing Uncle Sam.
The impression by U.S. officials that Chirac is going too far in chiding the Americans may be based on anecdotal evidence, such as my encounter with a Paris kiosk owner from whom I bought a newspaper. "Oh, we just love Americans," he beamed as he gave me a free piece of chocolate candy to go with the International Herald Tribune, "it's Bush we hate."
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