PARIS - Freedom fries? Good one. Pouring French wine down the drain? Hardly a sobering gesture. A barrage of tomatoes thrown President Bush's way tomorrow when he sets foot on French soil? Don't count on it. The French wouldn't waste the tomatoes.
Sorry, America. The French just aren't into the fight these days, and it has little to do with their feeling defeated by Bush, the U.S. Congress or even Bart Simpson and his French wisecracks. They are, in fact, more amused than hurt by the American punches that have been thrown their way since disagreements over the war in Iraq began.
But there are a lot of sighs by the Seine these days, a lot of pain, even, which have nothing to do with the United States or the war in Iraq. The country is occupied with more pressing matters than how Americans refer to their potatoes: France is deep in debt and has a high unemployment rate, and its economy is among the shakiest in Western Europe - and people here are deeply split on just what to do about it all.
Today's meeting of the Group of Eight - the annual summit of some of the world's most powerful countries, held in the French resort of Evian this year - is being watched as much for what it may say about the future of French-American relations as it is for anything on the actual agenda, which is not much. When Bush shakes the hand of his host, French President Jacques Chirac, their body language will be scrutinized by countries around the world.
Two other opponents of the war with Iraq, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, will also be on hand. The summit is likely to bring no surprises - the leaders are expected to offer words of support for the Middle East peace plan and agree in broad terms on the need to fight terrorism - but it could provide hints about whether the alliances of old will continue to be chilled by dysfunction.
Either way, it seems that most people in France could hardly care less.
"Bush is coming, and we will watch him because he is so strong and so stupid, and that is a dangerous combination," said Richard Convenant, 51, speaking in tones of resignation rather than bitterness as he waited for customers at his souvenir shop near the Seine. "But Bush is going to do to the world what Bush is going to do to the world. We are more concerned about what Chirac is going to do to France, about what will happen here."
Chirac may have the same anxieties. His opposition to the war in Iraq pushed his popularity ratings in France to 75 percent, no small accomplishment for a president mired in scandals that once had more than half the country telling pollsters they disliked him. But in the past few weeks, his popularity has dipped to 55 percent, and little or none of the decline has to do with the war. There are murmurs, however soft, that he could soon lose his job.
The country has been practically shut down by strikes this spring - another is scheduled next week - over government plans to make people work longer before retiring. The unemployment rate has approached 10 percent, high even by French standards, and consumer confidence is at its lowest since 1996. The economy shrank in the last quarter of last year, a rare occurrence for a Western country even in the worst of times, and the trend has continued downward.
"For most French, the only reason they care right now at all about the dispute with the United States is because they see it as a distraction for President Chirac, and they think he ought to pay more attention to fixing his problems at home," said Bruno Jeanbart, a political analyst for CSA, France's largest polling agency. "As far as political considerations go, the dispute has gone farther than was useful for our president."
Indications are that the leaders will be civil if not conciliatory. In an interview with French television Thursday, Bush said he was not angry with Chirac or the French. He said he was disappointed not that the government disagreed with U.S. policy on Iraq, but that it actively opposed it, trying to sway other nations to oppose the war.
Leaders express hope
The president said he would tell Chirac that the two countries could band together to tackle problems such as the AIDS epidemic in Africa and that the disagreement over the war, although not forgotten, is in the past.
"I'm going to remind him, just like I'm going to remind a lot of people, that we can do a heck of a lot more together than we can arguing with each other," Bush told the interviewer. "And I can understand why some didn't agree with our policy in Iraq, but it's now time to move forward."
For Chirac's part, he says opposing the war was the right thing to do - "A war that lacks legitimacy does not acquire legitimacy just because it has been won," he told the Financial Times of London last week - but he also offered words to soothe tensions.