Who's a better friend to America – Britain or France?
With a certain high-school-like insecurity, Americans have been changing their answer for two centuries. That's understandable. After all, the US has alternately been at war and in love with both countries.
In the last presidential election, the answer was quite clear. Republican attempts to smear John Kerry as "French" showed where America's affections lay. The beginning of the Iraq war had made British Prime Minister Tony Blair a stateside hero and turned French fries into Freedom fries.
Today, in the 2008 campaign, one Republican campaign strategist is trying to use the French insult again, this time against Hillary Rodham Clinton. It's tempting for a GOP operative to pin the tail on the Socialist, cheese-eating surrender monkey.
It's also totally out of step, because in the past year, France and Britain seem to have started trading places in America's heart.
Under the turbocharged presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, France isn't that old France anymore, while England's new Prime Minister Gordon Brown seems to be trying to assume the role of former French president Jacques Chirac.
A member of Mr. Brown's new cabinet warned a distinguished Washington audience not long ago that the time was gone when a country's prestige could be "measured in what [it] could destroy. In the 21st century ... we must form new alliances." The incoming foreign minister, a well-known critic of Britain's policy in Iraq, lost no time saying that Britain needs "to build coalitions that ... go beyond the bilateral blinkers of the normal partners."
As a British source in Washington commented to the Guardian about these distancing messages, the Brown team was going to assert its independence "one policy speech at a time.... It's a smarter way of doing it than [to] have a knockdown argument."
Meanwhile, Britain has moved, as Brown puts it, "from combat to overwatch" in three of the four Iraqi provinces under its control, and he is clearly impatient to leave the fourth as well. His position on the "military option" in Iran is leery at best.
All this plays well with Yankopho-bic commentators. One British writer last week called America "our imaginary friend," reminding his readers that the "rockets' red glare" of "The Star-Spangled Banner" actually came from the British.
And then there is President Sarkozy. Last week one columnist wryly called what he's doing "The French Revolution," but it could rightly be called an American Revolution as well.
His domestic policies make Socialist and union leaders' teeth itch: Cut a third of the civil service, pay for performance, encourage overtime, undermine the 35-hour workweek by any means necessary, rationalize the pension plans of half a million public workers, put work at the center of French life, and make heroes of those who, as he puts it, "get up early."
Despite his tough stand on illegal immigration, he would encourage the integration of France's Muslims into the economic mainstream with "positive discrimination" (euphemism for a measure long opposed by the French, which Americans call affirmative action).
In foreign policy, Sarkozy has gone American most notably in his policy toward Iran. He famously laid out the choice of "an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran." Iran's possession of nuclear weapons would be an "unacceptable risk to stability in the region and in the world," he said this week in a speech at the UN General Assembly.
"I want to tell the American people that the French people are their friends," he told The New York Times recently. "We are not simply allies. I am proud of being a friend of the Americans." He admitted that "a small part of the French elite" was anti-American, but added that this "in no way corresponds to what the French people think."
From his vacation in New Hampshire to his support for Israel and intolerance for French anti-Semitism, from his embrace of a market-driven society to his respect for ambition and worldly success, Sarkozy has shown himself as American as tarte aux pommes.
He has even reached out to touch that third rail of French politics, universal healthcare. Details are still unclear, but his desired outcome is likely to be closer to the proposals of Senator Clinton than those of Republicans such as Rudolph Giuliani, even though his posture of toughness has led supporters to call Sarkozy the "French Rudy."
Depending in part on the outcome of a test-of-wills strike that has been called for next month, Sarkozy could become just the latest victim of French political inertia or a national hero.
If the latter, which for now seems more likely, imagine Clinton and Mr. Guiliani battling over who is more like the leader of France. Coming so soon after Freedom fries, a contest for the mantle of "American Sarko" would be the richest of ironies.
James R. Gaines is the former editor of Time magazine and author of "For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions."