House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) has a message for French sympathizers: Let them eat “freedom fries.”
Despite weeks of threats of retaliation and countless Capitol Hill water cooler jokes about France’s resistance to war in Iraq, Ney’s symbolic renaming of “French fries” to “freedom fries” on menus in three House office buildings on Tuesday may end up being the only retribution France faces from Congress.
For weeks, House GOP leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers have pilloried France’s reluctance to support U.S. military action in Iraq, turning the longtime European ally into a punching bag for their irritation over the United Nations’ foot-dragging.
Seldom if ever flippant, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has spent the past month railing against the French, pointedly suggesting several times that he is considering offering a bill that would require orange labels on French wine as a warning that it may have been refined with bovine blood. (The European Union banned the practice in 1997 when mad cow disease rattled the continent, but some argue that older vintages were not subject to the same safety measures.)
Needless to say, the French are not pleased. When contacted about the labeling issue, Christian Berger, the agriculture consul at the French Embassy, said he was taking the matter “very seriously” and went on to rattle his own saber.
Berger argued that the World Trade Organization would not take any attempt to politicize trade policy lightly. He repeatedly stressed that very few French vintners ever used bovine blood to clarify their wine in the first place and that the practice is currently outlawed. Berger also passed along a “rumor” that some Chilean vintners use the same practice, adding that no one country could be singled out and that any trade sanction regarding the use of bovine blood would have to apply to all imports.
“And I believe that Chile is also a member of the [United Nation’s] Security Council,” he noted.
Although Hastert is the leader in pushing the labeling issue, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) and several of his conservative GOP brethren have eagerly lambasted the French at every opportunity. At a recent meeting between members of the House International Relations Committee and Arab ambassadors, one GOP lawmaker said everyone at the meeting refused to drink the Evian bottled water. DeLay’s comments have ranged from telling a joke about a French diplomat he met at a party — he asked him whether he spoke German and when the diplomat told him he did not, DeLay said “you’re welcome” and walked away — to giving President Bush a T-shirt with the words “Texas is bigger than France” emblazoned on it.
When asked two weeks ago whether he endorsed Hastert’s idea of putting orange labels on French wine, DeLay responded with a strong “you bet.”
Yet when the issue of Ney’s decision to inject the political issue into the House cafeterias came, DeLay simply dismissed it.
“I don’t think we have to retaliate against France,” he told reporters gathered at his weekly briefing Tuesday. “They’re doing a pretty good job isolating themselves.”
Hastert spokesman John Feehery has repeatedly claimed his boss is still pursuing the labeling legislation, but has yet to offer a clear progress report.