Francophobia

France comes to Seattle in search of American tourists.

I'M GETTING A FRESH perspective on the state of French-American relations from a bar stool in Belltown. Pro wrestling is on TV. The villain wears a beret and a Jean-Claude Van Damm sneer. He taunts the crowd by unfurling the French tricolor. When he gets roundly trounced by good guys in Desert Storm fatigues, the emcee shouts, "What a great time to be an American!" Deafening cheers. The faux Frenchie's nom-de-ring is Rob Van Damm, from Battle Creek, Mich., no less, who's managed to turn his Muscles from Brussels character into a pitiful Pirate of Paris. The audience may have little sense of geography, but even here at the tavern they need someone to boo and hate, non? Mais oui. "Fuck the French," the guy to my left growls into his Fat Tire.

Time warp to Rover's and free-flowing champagne two days later. France is fighting back with a 15-city media tour to promote a new tourism campaign ("Let's Fall in Love Again"), wooing local travel writers with the traditional enticements of food and wine. No one knows quite how we got from a simple fact of the French making their own call on invading Iraq to the notion that they hate Americans. Yet here we are. A downtown Seattle attorney says his firm's senior partners are choosing alternate destinations in the Mediterranean. Several Jewish friends cite isolated attacks on synagogues and cemeteries as evidence of "government-sanctioned" anti-Semitism in France. A woman from Spokane tells me she's never going back to Paris. Sylvain France, the French trade attach頩n Seattle, recalls speaking with a local couple who canceled their trip because they heard Americans were being attacked on the streets. Aside from the gratuitous posturing by people who weren't going to France at any rate, the Chirac government is worried about any decline in tourism by rich Americanshence this effervescent media tour, the grab bag of discounts available only for American visitors, and some new TV ads to dispel the notion that Americans are unwelcome.

Thierry Rautureau, Seattle's "Chef in the Hat," watches approvingly as white-jacketed waiters cruise the room bearing oysters with caviar, seared foie gras, and lobster salad. "France is all about love," he says, as Robin Mass饠of the French Government Tourist Office cues up the new promotional film. Wait till you see Woody Allen stammering about "freedom-kissing" his wife, or the New York City firefighter gushing about French hospitality.

I'VE ENJOYED the grace of French hospitality for decades, but tourists and travelers are fickle. With more vacation choices than ever and more reasons to not travel at all, folks are scrutinizing their portfolios and bank balances, listening to the gloomy forecasts, and finding plenty of reasons to stay home. Maybe this is the year for that face-lift, honey. So the plastic surgeons are doing fine, thank you. It's the leisure-travel business that's in les toilettes.

When I founded a boutique travel company called France in Your Glass in the mid-1980s, France still rhymed with romance, and meandering 'Merkins were eager to explore fine wine. On the hoof, glass in hand, amidst the vineyards of Margaux and Roman饭Conti. First growths and grand crus were the holy grail. My starry-eyed guests would arrive with a checklist of famous domaines to visit, a cheat sheet of the best vintages, and a matrix of scores from leading wine critics.

Sometimes I'd find myself turning into a French waiter, looking down my nose, and scolding, "Monsieur has ordered the calves brains with chocolate sauce." Still, they kept coming. An elegant Web site, designed by a family genius, brought business from around the globe, though more from Singapore than Seattle. (Local enophiles seemed loath to cough up my top-end rates for the privilege of lunching with aristocratic chⴥau owners, surrounded by dusty bottles from the ancestral cellar. "I'll just rent a car at the airport and wing it," I heard more than once. Works in Napa, maybe; not in Burgundy or Bordeaux.)

THEN THE PERFECT storm started brewing: the dot-com bubble. The 9/11 trauma. The market collapse. The run-up to Iraq. Iraq itself. Post-Iraq. SARS. The 20 percent slide in the dollar. Dubya's insane campaign to vilify the French for their presumption of political independence. The recession that's rapidly becoming a depression.

A depression for me, at any rate. France in Your Glass is broke. I guaranteed all those lines of credit, so I'm broke, too. Thanks, George. Thanks, Jacques. Maybe I can get a job with Thierry.

Ronald Holden was Seattle Weekly's executive editor from 1979-80.

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