Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Shocking Truth about Freedom Fries, the French Boycott and Fox News

by Nomad

An exclusive look back at the Conservative revenge against the French for not joining its coalition of the willing: the crusade of Freedom Fries and a boycott of French products, promoted by Fox News.

The French Warning

On February 14, 2003, Dominique de Villepin, French Minister of Foreign Affairs, addressed the UN to state his nation's opposition to the invasion of Iraq.
Ten days ago, the US Secretary of State, Mr. Powell, reported the alleged links between al-Qaeda and the regime in Baghdad. Given the present state of our research and intelligence, in liaison with our allies, nothing allows us to establish such links. On the other hand, we must assess the impact that disputed military action would have on this plan. Would not such intervention today be liable to exacerbate the divisions between societies, cultures and peoples, divisions that nurture terrorism?
UN Dominique de VillepinHis tone was that of an old friend giving advice to a headstrong impulsive youth:
This message comes to you today from an old country, France, from a continent like mine, Europe, that has known wars, occupation and barbarity. An old country that does not forget and knows everything it owes to the freedom-fighters who came from America and elsewhere. And yet has never ceased to stand upright in the face of history and before mankind.
The response from the member nations was unprecedented. His speech received an ovation from the normally circumspect crowd.
Villepin's remarks came on the heels of speeches by chief UN weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei who had both cautioned against taking a fatal misstep. Instead, they called for a "steady as she goes" policy with regards to the inspections.

The Bush administration was, to put it mildly, less than pleased. It was a critical time in the coalition forming and the prospects of forming any kind of international consensus were growing dim. This was not your daddy's coalition, critics might have told George Bush. 

Government officials were already well aware of the European opposition to any military action against Saddam Hussein. Opinion polls showed the population was against the war, with the opposition as high as 90% in Spain and Italy, and also widespread in Eastern Europe. Key allies like France and Germany both advocated a continuation of the inspections.

The Bush officials and the conservatives in Washington saw all this as nothing short of a European betrayal, led by the weak-willed French.

Punishing Allies

Instead weighing the advice from our allies- which, in hindsight, turned out to be stunningly accurate- what was the Republican response? They launched a crusade against the French in a ridiculous form possible.

Ohio House Republican Robert Ney got the ball rolling. As the Chairman of the House Administration Committee, Ney mandated, that "french fries" be renamed "freedom fries" on House of Representatives' food service menus.  Rep.Walter Jones, R-N.C would go on to join him in making the menu change official.

It was an effort, they told reporters, to show  their anger at "French intransigence" over the US-planned invasion of Iraq. Ney said. 
"Once again, our brave men and women in the American military are putting their lives on the line to ensure the freedom and security of others, and once again, France is sitting on the sidelines."

"Over the years, France has enjoyed all of the benefits of an alliance with the United States, and all our nation has received in return is a trade deficit and a cry for help when their appeasement efforts fail. This action today is a small but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure of many on Capitol Hill with the actions of our so-called ally, France."
Ney and Jones were joined by other Republicans too. For example, Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., wrote in a letter to the French and German ambassadors in Washington.
Americans and Congress "will not soon forget the rank hypocrisy and blatant disloyalty displayed by your country today..Your constant opposition to America's efforts to remove a regime that has continually violated several, if not all of the human rights provisions within the United Nations charter and presents an increasing threat to democracies all over the world is nothing short of appalling."

Losing Credibility

Even more bellicose remarks came from Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas:
"France and Germany are losing credibility by the day, and they are losing, I think, status in the world. They are walking a fine line that is very dangerous."
This kind of bravado was exactly the wrong way to handle the Europeans, where delicacy and subtlety achieve more results. Republican bullying- which might have been effective in the US- only solidified public opinion in Paris and Berlin.   

The conservatives were prepared to introduce legislation to punish French companies for the nation's rejection of the Bush cause for war. A member of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Jim Saxton, R-NJ. introduced bills to discourage American citizens and bar the Pentagon from participating in the Paris Air Show over the next several years. 
(You are permitted to roll your eyes.. now.) 

But more interestingly, Saxton used the faux controversy to try to reduce competition from French companies with a bill that would block from participating in or receiving U.S. government financing in any postwar reconstruction of Iraq. Limiting competition to a select list of friendly nations- with American companies taking highest priority- led to another fiasco. 

Sourcewatch explained the lack of competitive bidding led to a "pattern of waste, fraud, and abuse among U.S. companies receiving multi-million-dollar reconstruction contracts in the country, including massive over-charges for projects; shoddy work or a failure to complete tasks."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who met regularly with the President in the months following the 911 attacks,  offered a bill aimed at retaliation for restrictive French and European trade policies against American agricultural imports. He especially wanted to target French wine  bottled mineral water   (France is the leading exporter of water to the United States and sold 65 million gallons in 2003.)

According to Fox News source, Hastert was quite willing to use false pretenses to retaliate against French companies:
He has instructed Republican colleagues to determine whether Congress should pass laws that would impose new health standards on bottles of Evian and other French waters.
In the end, the official legislation aimed at the French turned out to be a lot of hot air or as your average Parisian might say " C’est du bidon."

Fox News: Stupidity to Hysteria

Predictably Fox News did its part to cheer the conservatives on and to promote a boycott of French products. Americans, according to a Fox News article from the time, had had enough of the French unwillingness to join them.
Americans have decided to boycott French products such as wine and cheese, in an effort to hurt the country's economy., a French cheese distributor, reported that its sales to the United States have gone down 15 percent in the past two weeks. Some U.S. eateries are no longer offering French wines.
It was, they implied, an act of patriotism. News reports noted that one restaurant in North Carolina had joined in and changed its menus.
Neal Rowland, who owns Cubbie's restaurant in Beaufort, N.C., said he decided to put stickers that say "Freedom" over the word "French" on all his menus after he watched France back away from support for war in Iraq. "Since the French are backing down, French fries and French everything needs to be banned," he told in a telephone interview. "Fry sales have really gone up. People who eat them now say, 'Freedom never tasted so good.'"
Even to the most innocent ears, that sounds like a third-rate marketing scheme. Nevertheless, Fox attempted to paint the boycott as a spontaneous grassroots idea. 

The report claimed that Rowland had "cooked up" (get it?) the idea basing it on anti-German sentiment at the start of World War I. The word "hysteria" was not used, but people who know their history understand that that is exactly what Rowland is unknowingly referring to. 
Historically, Rowland is correct. 

As a result of this hysteria, a few German-derived words were changed temporarily. Sauerkraut came to be called "liberty cabbage" and German measles became "liberty measles", hamburgers became "liberty sandwiches" and dachshunds became "liberty pups".

All very silly, I know, but there is a darker side to the kind of hysteria that Rowland celebrated. And for a good reason, Fox News failed to mention it to their audience. 

This 1917 overreaction opened up a lot of senseless violence and led to  various criminal acts such as the abuse and physical attacks on ethnic Germans in Lowden, Iowa and  the lynching of Robert Prager by a mob in Collinsville, Illinois.
As one source tells us about the earlier wave of hysteria:
In certain counties of Iowa, e.g. Cedar County, vigilantism was growing. Free speech, especially the wrong kind, was not encouraged. The distinction between disloyalty in thought or speech and disloyal behavior became blurred.
As in 1917, this anti-French movement was, the promoters implied, what any American ought to do for his nation. By his own account, Rowland was not only a shrewd businessman but a local hero.
"I had a gentleman come in today, who works at the court house, and he was crying, his son is serving in Afghanistan and he said he was so glad someone is taking a stand," said Rowland. "He was proud to see the support in the community for the troops."
Before the Iraq debacle was over, before Bush left office in 2009 six years later, with troops still trying to keep some semblance of order in Iraq, there would be a lot more families crying and asking each other how we got ourselves into this mess.
 *   *   *
The same article gives this very dry (but once again absolutely correct assessment of the attempt to boycott French products.
"Well, if they prefer to eat American food, it is entirely their problem," Guillaume Parmentier, the head of the French Centre on the United States, told the Canadian new service "But seriously. This never works. Boycotts work when there are grave human rights violations or something like that."
Although Fox News reported this quote suggesting deep concern by the French, Parmentier didn't sound too worried. And furthermore, he was correct about the boycott.

Boycotting the Truth: The Spin Begins

Even though there was a slim chance that a French boycott would have any effect. that fine point that didn't stop people like Bill O'Reilly from promoting it. In addition, he actually spun the nonsense into a major success.
O'Reilly said: "We hurt France, but it took, you know, millions of Americans to say, 'I'm not gonna buy French stuff.' " But the evidence shows that O'Reilly's boycott has not measurably hurt French exports to the United States, which have increased each year since 2002.
And despite that, he continued to promote a false narrative using false sources:
On April 27, 2004, he asserted that the boycott had cost France "billions of dollars," citing the "Paris Business Review" as a source, but Media Matters documented that Census figures actually showed an increase in U.S. imports from France; additionally, there is no evidence of a publication named the "Paris Business Review."
A year later, in 2007, when tempers had cooled, a researcher came to the same conclusion. According to a comprehensive study by the Rand Corporation, Princeton, and Cornell universities, the boycott of French products, especially French wines, was a flop, followed by a lie:
We find that at first glance, the calls for a boycott did lead to a decline in French wine sales in the United States. However, at the time of the boycott, French wine sales had already been declining over a longer period, and just before the boycott period, sales of French wine had experienced a seasonal holiday peak. When the secular decline and seasonal effects are accounted for, there is no boycott effect.
It was long known that French wine sales ordinarily increase in November, December, and January, a significant holiday period in the United States and decrease after the holiday season.
With or without the boycott, wine sales would have declined. In fact, say the researchers,
When holiday and trend effects are included, the boycott effect disappears. In all cases—the revenue share of each brand, the quantity of each brand, and the quantity share of each brand—sales are unaffected by the boycott. In fact, the point estimates for the effect of the boycott on revenue share and quantity share actually are positive, although these coefficients are not statistically significant.
None of this- meaning, the truth- mattered at Fox News. By citing imaginary sources, O'Reilly was smugly claiming great success.

What Became of The Freedom Fries Crusaders

Of the politicians who denounced the French, Ney was forced to resign after pleading guilty to conspiracy and making false statements related to the JackAbramoff lobbying scandal.  

His sidekick, Walter Jones, whose support for the invasion was solid, quickly changed his tune and openly expressed deep regret for ever having promoted the "freedom fries" idea.  (I have reported on Jones in other blog posts)

Gaddafi Curt WeldonIn 2004 Curt Weldon, whose concern for human rights was proudly proclaimed against the French, would go on to put an  American flag pin on the chest of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi during a visit. (It was part of his short-lived rehabilitation period.)

In a short time, things got more complicated for both of them.

In September 2006, Weldon was voted one of the top 20 most corrupt politicians in an annual report by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).  (A list Santorum made it on too, incidentally.)
The organization said:
"His ethics issues stem from using his position to financially benefit his children and a family friend."
Indeed, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Los Angeles Times published detailed accounts of allegations of an influence-peddling scheme involving the congressman and a Russian oil company, Itera International Energy Corp. Despite receiving oodles of money from insurance and drug companies, Weldon lost a bid for re-election in 2006 with only 45% of the vote.

In yet another scandal, Tom DeLay also resigned and was found guilty for his involvement in a financial scheme to influence Texas elections.
(In September of 2013, that judgement was overturned and he ended up serving no time at all. That's what a Republican victory in Texas smells like.)

The Lessons of the Freedom Fries

The end result of this Fox News-created freedom fry French boycott hysteria could be written off as just another example of the kind of reporting that we have come to expect from the new channel. 
Still, there are other lessons we can learn. 

Sometimes friends- both on a personal level or on an international one- are there to tell you when you are about to make a colossal mistake. They may be the only ones who will tell you what you need to hear.

When the US was about to make the costly misjudgment of following the Bush administration into an expensive and essentially unwinnable war, our allies, who proved themselves to be good friends as well as excellent visionaries, were turned into national enemies. Wisdom often comes by listening to hard truths. The history of the Freedom fries could be only another case of ridiculous manipulation of easily-fooled Fox News watchers if it were for one overriding fact.

The US has paid the price for following people who promote ideas like freedom fries and French boycotts.

The unnecessary deaths of thousands of American men and women who died because of their trust in their government should have taught us something about listening to charlatans. The millions of innocent Iraqis that have died or have been injured should have shamed us into questioning our judgment and listening to wise counsel from allies.  I must use the phrase "should have" because I am not sure if the US has learned anything.

One thing is certain: Because we were too arrogant to listen to dissenting opinions, today the United States has become a nation that believes it is above international law and even now harbors possible war criminals, like Dick Cheney and George W. Bush among others.

In the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of Iraq- something that could possibly have been avoided- the continuing sectarian violence on a daily basis has destroyed lives.
It has left a nation virtually uninhabitable with millions of Iraqis still displaced from their homes, both inside the country and as refugees in neighboring countries. In short, precisely what de Villepin warned about in 2002.

And yet the worst aspect of this freedom fries farce is that the players in the deception, like Fox News, are still in full operation. Few conservative voters appear to remember how they were manipulated, and of those, fewer still care to reflect on their own responsibility in this sad bit of American history. 

Instead of looking back, they have turned to more nonsense like Benghazi or whatever else Fox News decides to "cook up."

Not everybody was dancing to the Freedom Fry Boogie. Here's another post I did earlier last year. Iraq Invasion Anniversary: What it Feels like to be Ahead of Your Time