Americans who eschew brie and Beaujolais

Boycotts of all things French stem from disputes over Iraq - but have roots in centuries-old cultural tensions.

The way Dan O'Neill sees it, he can at least send a message. His leverage, he knows, is limited. Foie gras is hardly a staple of the American diet. Nor is Camembert cheese in great demand for Chicago Bears tailgaters.

But his Garden Fresh Market in Mundelein, Ill., is one of three stores in a chain that is taking all French products - from Evian to Dijon mustard - off its shelves to protest French opposition to the United States on Iraq.

Never mind that Germany has taken a similar stance, not to mention Russia and China. No one is urging a ban of BMWs or kung pao chicken. The beret nation, however, is spared no slight. One North Carolina restaurant has famously renamed French fries "freedom fries," and disc jockeys in Las Vegas recently crushed baguettes and pictures of the French president with an armored vehicle.

Part of it, of course, is politics, as France relishes its usual role as a speed bump to America's global policy. Yet for many, the boycotts touch a deeper cultural chord, as well - one that has more to do with stereotyped images of French effrontery than Saddam Hussein or Gulf geopolitics.

They are a backlash against surly waiters, condescending cuisine, and the perceived ingratitude of France's unwillingness to help America after America helped France during World War I and II.

Customer Linda Cichowski smiles as she considers the boycott at Garden Fresh: "Good for them," she says. "The French are always picking on us, so why not?"

So it is for many Americans. For them, this is not a bill of divorce. Flights to Paris aren't likely to go empty. Rather, it is simply the latest spat between an international odd couple long bound by equal parts admiration and exasperation.

Ken Wagner understands the exasperation part. Last month, after France opposed a NATO plan to protect Turkey in case of war, the owner of Roxy's restaurant in West Palm Beach, Fla., dumped all his French drinks into the street. With TV cameras there to catch the moment, he became an instant celebrity.

That suits him fine.

"I felt frustrated," says Mr. Wagner, suggesting that the allies need to keep a united front if they are to have any chance of convincing Hussein to disarm. "If I dump out these wines, it might not be much, but it's a statement."

Others, like Garden Fresh, have been searching for how to make similar statements - from wine dumps to congressional pleas for the US to boycott the Paris Air Show in June.

As for Wagner, business is up since his Palm Beach Tea Party, and while he insists his protest is political, he acknowledges it also has other undertones.

"We've all thought about the way France seems to snub her nose at us despite the fact that we've freed her two times," Wagner says. "How quickly they forget."

Indeed, much of the France-bashing has taken a decidedly militaristic tone. Representative Roy Blount of Missouri began a Republican conference last month by cracking: "Do you know how many Frenchmen it takes to defend Paris? It's not known; it's never been tried."

To historians, however, these sorts of jibes are as old as the two republics themselves. Born from the same intellectual ferment of the late 18th century, they are at once closely intertwined, yet radically different.

On the one hand, France is America's oldest ally - dating to the revolutionary days of George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. Moreover, the ideas that shaped America's greatest document, the Constitution, sprang from French philosophers like Rousseau and Montesquieu. Even the nation's most recognizable symbol, the Statue of Liberty, is a gift from France.

Yet rarely have two allies had such overt and opposing superiority complexes.

Both see themselves as models for new nations - America's ideal of a democracy unencumbered by government versus France's notion of a state as the central and active agent in society. Both see themselves as leaders of the new global statecraft - America's might versus France's consensus.

Yet for the folks rifling through the shelves of Garden Fresh Market, the clearest contrast is between French and American culture. And until the invention of Roquefort dip for Doritos, those differences would seem to be irreconcilable.

"French culture is influenced by aristocratic images," says Jean-Philippe Mathy, author of "French Resistance: The French-American Culture Wars." "That clashes with the popular culture of the US."

To be sure, America is not all McDonald's and France is not all brie and bichon frisé. There is a cultural middle ground between the stereotypes, most agree, and that is what both countries should be seeking now.

"I don't think we should boycott anyone," says Sue Montgomery as her two children try to convince her to turn down the cookie aisle. "The world needs more understanding right now."

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