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Forget Fries: France, Hill Now Amis

At a recent reception at the French ambassador’s residence honoring the French Congressional Caucus, the catchword of the evening was magnanimity.

There was the ambassador, Jean-David Levitte, calling former Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), the caucus’s founder, a man of “courage” and “vision.”

When it was his turn to speak, Houghton returned the favor. Levitte was, in his estimation, “The best ambassador I’ve seen in Washington.”

In fact, nearly everywhere you turned that night there were Members and Congressional alumni falling all over themselves to emphasize their Francophile credentials.

Former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.), the chairman of the newly formed Former Members Committee on France, told the assembled crowd that he actually preferred the French pronunciation of his name (sounding like “Michelle”) rather than the one he used during his political career (“Michael”).

In fact, he revealed, when he was in the military — the American one — he refused to answer to anything else.

Oh yes, Michel added: Back in the day, his great-great-great-great grandfather, Martin Michel, was in Napoleon Bonaparte’s guard.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who concluded her brief remarks by proclaiming, “No more ‘freedom fries,’” noted that she had two grandchildren who were “French citizens.”

But Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) topped them all. Oberstar, who co-chairs the House Congressional French Caucus with Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) and is known to download the French versions of “Le Monde” for his perusal, delivered his elegant speech on the importance of the relationship — in both French and English.

Of course, two years ago, France’s decision not to back the U.S.-led invasion into Iraq triggered a flood of largely symbolic anti-French activity on Capitol Hill, from the suggestion by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) that orange warning labels be placed on some French wine, to the order by House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) to rechristen the House cafeteria’s french fries and french toast “freedom fries” and “freedom toast,” to the legislation by Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) to allow the remains of World War II veterans buried in France to be brought home.

In fact, the relationship had gotten so frosty back then that not long after President Bush’s May 2003 declaration of an end to major hostilities in the Iraq war, Levitte headed to Capitol Hill to convince Members there was a need for some sort of French-American friendship group. As a result, the French Congressional Caucus was born in the fall of 2003, with Houghton as the original chairman.

Now, the uncomfortableness of days past seemed little more than a footnote in the Franco-American relationship. Levitte briefly referred to the need to “turn the tide” after the war and joked about the two countries having been in “marriage counseling” for the past 200 years.

When helping establish the caucus, Levitte “had this idea that we were getting off the rails with France,” said Houghton, whose father had served as President Dwight Eisenhower’s ambassador to France. “We were trying to battle the egos of some of our leaders.”

As a first step, French President Jacques Chirac invited a delegation of caucus members to Paris in February 2004 to meet with “half the French Cabinet,” Petri said.

Oberstar, the lone Democrat to attend the meetings, said his GOP colleagues “were very frank in expressing the majority view of the Republican Party, the view of the administration and raising concerns about, ‘Why did France do this?’ and ‘Why did you oppose the U.S. resolution?”

“The discussions, as they say in diplomatic language, were frank and forthright,” he added.

Levitte, himself, is quick to concede that the caucus is not a forum solely for “Members who are supportive of the French view,” but rather a means to build relationship. It’s a distinction that is emphasized by several Members, mainly Republican.

Indeed, despite the lovefest on display the night of the reception, there is hardly unanimity among the caucus when it comes to French foreign policy.

“I am more critical of the French than most people,” said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a caucus member. “The French have the attitude that if they keep feeding the alligator they’ll be eaten last. That’s a huge assumption.”

Still, he said, “anytime you can educate each other on points of interest it’s beneficial.”

Which is exactly what another caucus member, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), decked out in French cuffs, appeared to be doing during a radio interview with a French reporter at the reception that night. Smith, who had tweaked Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) during the presidential race for wanting to pursue policies “that [would] have us act like the French,” said he had no hostility toward the French people, but that his “preference is the American perspective.”

Other caucus members, mainly Democrats, said they had no problem with France’s decision to sit out the war.

Though Smith was talking up the “American perspective,” Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) had made a point earlier in the evening of telling a French television reporter that “France was right on the war.”

Today the caucus, including both its Senate and House wings, boasts more than 50 members, which are split nearly evenly between Democrats and Republicans. In the Senate, the caucus is co-chaired by Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

One member you won’t find on the rolls, however, is Ney.

When asked last week why his name no longer appears on current membership lists, Ney said, “Actually, I wasn’t” a member. He later clarified that he had “probably” briefly been part of the caucus. (According to Houghton, Ney had told him, “I’m with you, but I wish you wouldn’t use my name. It’s a little embarrassing.”)

“I think it’s a good thing,” Ney added, though he demurred to say what it would take to get him to rejoin.

Michel understands why some current members might be uncomfortable with the close association with France. Some of them are probably still irked that “Chirac didn’t support us,” he said.

That’s why former Members can help “sift this all out,” and why he agreed, at Levitte’s request, to head a newly established Former Members Committee on France, an affiliate of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress.

“I’ll have to do some missionary work,” he laughed.

Meanwhile, the caucus is pushing ahead. Today in Paris, some caucus members are scheduled to take part in a U.S.-French Congressional Roundtable, which will focus on the bilateral trade relationship. France, after all, is the second largest foreign investor in the United States, Petri noted.

“It’s important to be magnanimous with a big win,” said Smith, referring to the success of the recent Iraqi elections. “It’s important to be big enough to rebuild the relationship.”

As for those fries, even Ney may be softening on the issue. Asked if he planned to restore them to their more commonly used appellation, he laughed. “We’ll think about it,” he said.

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