French goods face U.S. backlash
Sofitel hotels, fearful of anti-French sentiment, take precautions; some vendors report ambivalence.
March 13, 2003
By Parija Bhatnagar,
CNN/Money Staff Writer
NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - French opposition to a war in Iraq appears to be creating a backlash against all things French in the United States.
Products decidedly French, such as wines, cheese and even French-owned hotel chains like Sofitel, have been on the receiving end of some angry American consumer sentiment lately.
If the backlash explodes into a boycott of French products, it has the potential to affect $47 billion of bilateral trade between the United States and France.
French flags no longer are flying high and proud outside the Sofitel Hotel in midtown Manhattan. The French-owned hotel chain, part of the French hotel company Accor, whose units include U.S. motel chains Red Roof Inn and Motel 6, replaced the flags with the Stars and Stripes as a peace offering to its American guests.
Sofitel spokesman Paul Charoy said the company last week decided to remove the French flags in front of all eight of its hotels in the United States as a "precautionary" measure and replaced them with a combination of the American flag and city and state flags.
"We wanted to calm down the situation a little," Charoy said. "We were getting some severe feelings and threats directed toward the safety and security of our employees and customers."
"This is not a political consideration," Charoy said. "The move is temporary and we just wanted to be safe."
Charoy added that about 70 percent of the hotels' customers in the United States are American.
French President Jacques Chirac said Tuesday that France, like Russia, will vote against a second U.N. resolution that could lead to war against Iraq "no matter what the circumstances."
The Bush administration said Thursday that the debate on a new resolution on Iraq could stretch into next week to give Security Council members more time to consider the latest British disarmament proposal for Iraq. [Click here for CNN Special Report: Showdown:Iraq]
Meanwhile, in a culinary rebuke to France, the restaurant menus in the three House office buildings said they would change the name of "french fries" to "freedom fries" and "french toast" to "freedom toast."
Marc Refabert, founder of fromage.com, a Tours, France-based distributor of French cheese with about 8,000 customers in the United States, said he's been getting hostile e-mails from some of his American customers. He's even divided them into three categories -- the polite rebuffs, the "shocking" letters, and some that said "Vive la France."
"Some of these letters are really disgusting," Refabert said. "Even if we don't agree on the French position, it does not justify those kind of letters. On the other hand, a few Americans are writing to us saying they're supporting us."
According to Michael Aaron, chairman of the Manhattan-based Sherry-Lehman wine store, his customers were also showing some ambivalence toward French goods.
"We've had a few customers who came in and said, 'Only show us American wine and no French wine,'" Aaron said. "But when we went over our February sales numbers for French wines, they were up 12 percent over last year."
"I think American consumers are talking out of one side of their mouth and still drinking French wine in from the other," Aaron said.
But Serge Bellenger, president of the French-American Chamber of Commerce, said that although he's noted a few isolated incidents of anti-French sentiment against French businesses, he doesn't see it rising to a bigger wave against all French products.
"I think the American and French business communities will respond to it accordingly if something like that happens," Bellenger said. "France has about $120 billion of direct investment in the U.S. That's a lot of French business and a lot of money."
France is the ninth-largest trading partner of the United States, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission. Total U.S. exports to France last year totaled $19 billion, while total U.S. imports from France totaled $28 billion in 2002. Top of page