French-bashing draws mixed views around New Orleans

Some suggest renaming quarter, snubbing Chirac; others dismiss uproar


By GLYNN WILSON / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

NEW ORLEANS – Nationalistic fervor over French opposition to the war in Iraq may inspire anti-French measures in Washington cafeterias and in diners across the heartland of America, especially where French toast is sold.

But in the fine restaurants of French Creole New Orleans, no one is removing French cuisine or wine from the menu. Proposals to rename the French Quarter and to snub the president of France by withdrawing his invitation to the Louisiana Purchase bicentennial later this year are dismissed by some with airy disdain.

The proposals "don't hurt anybody," French chef Jacques Leonardi said. " C'est dommage."

The phrase literally translates as "that's unfortunate." But the connotation comes closer to: "It doesn't matter. It's nothing."

Rep. A.G. Crowe, R-Slidell, planned to introduce a resolution in the Louisiana Legislature this week to remove French President Jacques Chirac from a list of dignitaries invited to town for the Louisiana Purchase's 200th anniversary in December.

"I just think it's inappropriate to raise the American flag with the president being here when [Mr. Chirac is] standing against us in the liberation of Iraq," Mr. Crowe said.

Mr. Chirac and President Bush have been invited to the Dec. 20 re-enactment of the Louisiana Purchase, but neither have responded.

David White, 29, a New Orleans resident, writer and information-technology manager, presented a petition to the City Council on March 20 asking for an ordinance to rename the city's oldest neighborhood the "Freedom Quarter."

Mr. White said in this time of war when France opposes America, "I don't think we should be calling things by French names. I think American things should be called by American names."

City Council member Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, representing the French Quarter, dismissed Mr. White's petition.

"Although I don't appreciate the French ... that doesn't mean you can rename the French Quarter," Ms. Clarkson said. "The Quarter is a historical treasure of the United States, and it should never be touched."

Republican Gov. Mike Foster, who is running for re-election, got in on the act in his radio address last week, saying, "People are really fed up with France."

Most callers to the show seemed to agree that the invitation to Mr. Chirac should be rescinded.

Mr. Foster said he wouldn't attend the bicentennial if he were Mr. Chirac. "There is no point in going to get booed," he said.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bobby Jindal said that, if elected in November, he would pull Mr. Chirac's invitation.

The group Citizens for Direct Action called for the cancellation of ties between Lafayette and sister cities in Belgium and France. The ambassadors from Canada and Belgium are due to attend the annual Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette in late April.

New Orleans officials and French Quarter businesses may be dismissing all this as just talk, but it is causing gastronomical distress to those in the tourism industry who have two years' worth of planning involved in the yearlong series of cultural events celebrating the Louisiana Purchase.

Phillip Jones, director of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, said the state already could lose $800 million or so in tourism money because of the Iraq war and a travel economy in the doldrums.

Mr. Crowe's resolution would embarrass the state, he said. Louisiana is among Europeans' top five tourist destinations, he said.

French support – including loans of artwork, documents and other artifacts – is essential to many of the hundreds of celebrations around the state, Mr. Jones said.

Economic development officials say it has already hurt business.

Damien Regnard, president of the Louisiana chapter of the French-American Chamber of Commerce based in New Orleans, said that French businessmen who were considering bringing jobs to Louisiana canceled an April trade mission because of the recent bashing by politicians.

A scientific exchange meeting between Louisiana and French cancer research specialists scheduled for July in Lyon, France, also has been put on hold and probably will be canceled, Mr. Regnard said. Mr. Regnard's organization, based in New Orleans, had been working with 10 French corporations interested in locating in Louisiana, he said.

But, in the French Quarter, all this is taken in stride.

When this war runs its course, "France will always be France," said Mr. Leonardi, a French import who runs Jacque-Imo's, a popular neighborhood eatery. "And the French Quarter will always be the French Quarter."

Glynn Wilson is a freelance writer based in New Orleans. The Associated Press contributed to this report.