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The United States may or may not be going to war with Iraq this month, but it is already at war with France. In case there was any lingering doubt about that, this week saw two developments that brought the erstwhile allies’ mutual hostility out into the open.

First, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin traveled to Africa to try to persuade three of the six U.N. Security Council countries still wavering on the war issue not to support Washington if a second resolution is put to the vote. That was hardly the act of a confrere in the great clash of civilizations.

But if we’re talking about civilization-defying acts, the Americans have gone Mr. de Villepin one better: Last Tuesday, cafeterias in the U.S. House of Representatives stopped serving French fries and French toast. If you want to boost your cholesterol level on Capitol Hill now, you have to order “freedom fries” and “freedom toast.” There was no word on whether you still can, or ever could, order French beans, bread, dressing or mustard or anything a la mode or au jus in the House dining rooms. Nor was it clear whether lawmakers plan to shutter their French windows or refrain from French kisses in the troubled weeks ahead.

But then, nobody ever claimed that this kind of response was rational. When a French Embassy spokesman quietly pointed out that “French fries” originated in Belgium, you could almost hear the dismissive sniff from the Hill: As far as Washington is concerned, France, Belgium, Germany. . . . What’s the difference? They’re “Old Europe,” and they’re toast, as the saying goes.

The truth is, all things francais are under a cloud in parts of the U.S. right now. So great is the sense of betrayal that Iraqis are probably more popular with many Americans than French people are. In this strangest of strange conflicts, the people whose country the U.S. plans to invade “with guns blazing,” even those who demonstrate in the streets in support of President Saddam Hussein, are painted not as the enemy but as victims waiting to be rescued. The French, by contrast, are painted as the blackest of backstabbers. Just ask the French hotel chain Sofitel, which has prudently lowered the tricolor at all 10 of its U.S. establishments for fear of cancellations or reprisals, and American wine and cheese importers, who report a significant drop in orders for French products.

One irony is that the anti-French brigade this time around is by and large rightwing. Eight years ago, when France briefly resumed nuclear-weapons testing in the South Pacific, it was the global left leading the boycotts of Bordeaux wines, Gauloise cigarettes and Volvic water. Maybe that just goes to show that the French are capable of annoying everyone.

In the case of the freedom fries, however, those of us watching from afar are experiencing mixed emotions, quite unlike the untroubled support we all gave Greenpeace back in 1995. Whom or what do we support here?

On the one hand, the House of Representatives’ petty show of jingoism has been a welcome light moment in a dark period. What is funnier than watching blowhard politicians successfully caricature themselves? By all means, let the show go on. On the other hand, it’s been a sobering, almost shocking, spectacle. As funny as it seems, the legislators responsible for it took their menu change seriously. The result, “making Congress look even sillier than it sometimes looks,” as Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts put it last week, is no joke, especially considering the remarkable lack of debate in Congress over this controversial war. Democrats like Congressman Frank may scoff at freedom fries, but with one or two exceptions, none of them has mounted a sustained intellectual challenge to President George W. Bush’s case for war. “Freedom,” it seems, means freedom only to agree, whether in Washington or Paris.

Does that mean France gets an unequivocal pass in its efforts to obstruct Mr. Bush’s plans? No. Legitimate questions have been raised about its motives — in terms of both its commercial ties to Iraq and its determination to thwart U.S. unilateralism almost on principle — and it has at times appeared as deaf as Washington to the other side’s arguments. Yet there is no escaping it: Whatever its motives and whatever the outcome, France has become the strongest international voice pleading for patience, restraint and continued diplomacy — harder options than war, perhaps, but surely preferable to the carnage that is looming. At the very least, it should be acknowledged that France, or any nation, has the right to oppose the U.S. and Britain on this issue without being demonized.

We’ll drink a toast to that variety of freedom.

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