It's the French's Mustard story I like best. French's Mustard was a staple on nearly every American meal table - the classic hot-dog mustard, in fact, in yellow plastic bottles with a tapering nozzle - until France and the US clashed bitterly over the invasion of Iraq. Sales of French's Mustard plunged. So much so that the company that owns it put out a press statement from an office in New Jersey: "For the record, French's would like to say: there is nothing more American than French's Mustard." R T French introduced its "cream salad mustard" to accompany hot dogs at the 1904 World's Fair in St Louis and it has been as robustly American as apple pie ever since.
Or has it? The reason the press release was issued from a New Jersey office was actually a disingenuous one: French's Mustard is now owned by a British conglomerate, Reckitt Benckiser plc, based in Slough. From the moment Congress decided to rename French fries "freedom fries" in its cafeterias - followed by companies and schools all over the country - products perceived to be French or German have been largely boycotted by the American populace. Some French restaurants are already on the verge of bankruptcy, and French salad dressing - another hugely popular American staple - has been hastily renamed.
Sales of Heineken beer have also dropped - even though it has been owned by a Dutch company since the first brew was sold in 1863. Yoplait yoghurt was also assumed to be French, though it is made by General Mills, Inc (which pays a small licensing fee to a French dairy firm). Even Nestle products have been fingered as being made by the filthy French, though Nestle is actually owned by a Swiss company. And although French products have been boycotted most of all, a survey of 1,000 consumers by Fleishman-Hillard International Communications shows that German goods - Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Krupp and Braun - are twice as easily recognised as old European than French products.
The campaign to boycott French goods is still revived practically daily by Fox Television, the aggressively populist network whose 24-hour news channel ("fair and balanced") has now overtaken CNN. Its prime-time star, Bill O'Reilly, has made anti-Gallic consumerism a major feature of his show. "The French continue to hammer the US over the Iraq situation," he says. "And a poll on my website, billoreilly.com, says that Americans overwhelmingly want some payback. More than 50,000 people have res-ponded to the internet poll, and 93 per cent support boycotting French goods, [while] just 6 per cent are opposed."
As one guest on his show said: "You know, we have bailed out France now three times in this century, in the First World War, in the Second World War, and then in the cold war - and so France really does owe us a debt of gratitude . . . that means not buying French perfume, not buying French champagne and products that will enrich the French people."
When President Bush visited France for the G8 summit at the start of this month, he was determined to avoid spending a night on French soil, but in the end had to compromise for 24 hours (after pointedly visiting Poland, in the heart of "new Europe", first). "Let's hope," said a fair and balanced Fox News anchorman, "that he doesn't drink Evian." In the end, in this chilly atmosphere, Bush settled for a peremptory handshake and brief press conference with Jacques Chirac (who speaks good English but insisted on having an obtrusive French translator speaking loudly in his ear as Bush spoke, much to Dubbya's visible irritation).
It has become more serious than just a media fad that will pass. Hatred proliferates. "If we'd sprinkled some A-bombs back in the Second World War," pronounced the Weekly World News, a popular supermarket sleazoid, "Germany wouldn't be a thorn in America's side today." A college in the Midwest has dropped its German-American exchange programme. At a major Miami golf tournament, the French player Thomas Levet was booed and heckled on the course - as, to be fair, was Serena Williams at the French Open. Europeans, from whose ranks the British have been excluded for the campaign, are openly referred to as "Euroweenies" or "EU-nuchs". Richard Perle of the defence policy board says that Europe has lost its "moral compass" and France its "moral fibre".
In his book Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the new world order, Robert Kagan writes that Americans are from Mars while Europeans are from Venus. Note that Europeans are the feminised, womanish category. In an Ipsos-Reid poll, only 30 per cent of Democrats and 6 per cent of Republicans thought that "the Europeans seem to prefer diplomatic over war solutions and that is a positive value Americans could learn from"; 13 per cent of Democrats and 35 per cent of Republicans chose: "The Europeans are too willing to seek compromise rather than to stand up for freedom, even if it means war, and that is a negative thing."
There is more that encapsulates American thinking, from the highest level in the Bush administration down to the grass roots. The aggressive view of France and Germany as enemies of America who tried to thwart US policy on Iraq is found at all social and income levels: 59 per cent of Republicans and 33 per cent of Democrats agreed that "the United States must remain in control of all operations and prevent its European allies from limiting the United States' room to manoeuvre". Americans blame Europeans for failing to intervene effectively in Bosnia, and believe that the good ol' United States had, once again, to move in to bail them out. The US House of Representatives circulated an official letter that spoke of "France's self-serving politics of passive aggression". A Pew poll found that those seeing France favourably a decade ago stood at 90 per cent, and that the figure plunged to 7 per cent earlier this year. Planned holidays to France this year have been cancelled on a large scale.
How much have all these attitudes filtered down from the top of the administration? Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, was the first to articulate it when he said in January: "Germany has been a problem and France has been a problem." He also said: "You're thinking of Europe as Germany and France. I don't. I think that's old Europe." The epithet stuck, and Germany and France - not Britain, though it, too, would have been included had Tony Blair wavered in his support of the war on Iraq - became old and enfeebled as well as wimpy and feminised.
Dubbya has been said to point out to visitors at the White House the chair in which Gerhard Schroder "sat and lied" when he promised not to capitalise on anti-American feeling in Germany before he was re-elected chancellor on just such a platform. The hatred for France and Germany has indeed been visceral, and has come from the very top.
But now cooler heads are beginning to prevail, at least publicly, in the Bush administration. It has started to realise that all the ill-feeling could damage America economically as much as France and Germany. Despite his deliberate snubbing of France by going to new Europe first, Dubbya said in Krakow earlier this month, in fact addressing old Europe: "You have not come all this way, through occupations and tyranny and brave uprisings, only to be told you must now choose between Europe and America." Tentative olive branches are therefore being extended. But O'Reilly continues with his fierce campaign, and French's Mustard is still absent from countless American meal tables. The media myths have been firmly planted.