No More French Resistance?

Posted March 11, 2003 at 6:49pm

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.

[IMGCAP(1)] “We haven’t made any final decisions,” Feehery said. “Staff right now is drafting legislation. We haven’t decided how to proceed yet.”

No doubt Hastert could move quickly and attach it to upcoming trade legislation. But to do so, he most likely would be forced to contend with Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (Calif.), an ardent free-trader. While Thomas has avoided making any direct public statements, his only comments about the matter reflect a reluctance to unabashedly politicize trade policy.

At a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Thomas poured cold water on any notion of using trade policy to retaliate against any European country.

“The primary reaction is kind of sadness and disappointment,” he said. “There are folks who make rash statements. Those won’t be translated into policy.”

Of course, Hastert runs the House and has the ability to push any legislation to the floor he wants. “I’m sure we’ll work with [Rep.] Phil Crane [R-Ill.] and Bill Thomas if we decide to pursue this route,” Feehery countered.

But Thomas is not the only prominent House Republican with concerns about politicizing trade policy, although all interviewed for this article took pains to disagree with Hastert in a respectful way.

Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.), who made a living as vintner before winning a seat in Congress, has been working for years to try to reduce trade barriers on wine exported to the European Union. He, as well as the wine lobby in Washington, worries that any kind of labeling action could create a serious backlash and ruin any progress made.

The California Republican co-chairs the Wine Caucus with Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who represents the Napa Valley. The Caucus sponsored a trip to France a year ago to try to end the French dominion over descriptions such as Chablis, Burgundy and Champagne. He and Thompson have helped forge a “new world” wine alliance of the U.S., Chile, Australia and South Africa.

“Wine is not going to be treated lightly anymore,” he said. “Our trip has really generated some progress and we have a good debate going on and we don’t want to mess that up.”

Radanovich also worries that any suggestion that European Union wine might contain bovine blood could confuse consumers into thinking that U.S. vintners have also used the practice.

“If [Hastert] wanted to put a label on there that said ‘spineless weasel wine,’ the U.S. industry would not object. We encourage the use of U.S. wines over French wines … but sometimes consumers don’t get the message properly.”

Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.), a senior member on International Relations and a respected voice on trade matters, also strongly disagrees with Hastert’s labeling proposal and believes legislation will never materialize.

“I’m told that it’s no longer going to happen,” he said. “My attitude is not to exacerbate relations with our European allies and ourselves despite our understandable unhappiness with France and Belgium.”

Other foreign policy experts were inclined to tread carefully around the issue.

When asked, Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) said he believed Hastert’s frustrations with the French were “quite valid,” but he believed bringing up a bill could be counter-productive.

“We should be extremely cautious about any kind of economic retribution,” Leach said in a brief interview. He later clarified his statement, saying that he reserves judgment on the merit of producing a bill “depending on the circumstance.”

The misgivings within the GOP Conference pale in comparison to those expressed by Democrats reacting to retaliation against the French.

On Tuesday, Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) ridiculed the idea of moving to “freedom fries” and “freedom toast” in House cafeterias.

“Should we also instruct tailors across the country not to do any more shirts with French cuffs?” he said in a statement. “We could notify couples that French kissing is unacceptable, and from now on, should be known as freedom kissing.”

One senior House Democratic aide who has worked for 16 years in the Longworth House Office Building said this is the first time he has been embarrassed to work for Congress.

“This is a pathetic, juvenile stunt that makes the House look like a laughingstock,” he said. “I thought this kind of jingoistic insanity went out in World War I when they changed the name of sauerkraut to liberty cabbage and history recorded it as a ridiculous thing that happened in the throes of nationalistic fervor.”