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Mary McGrory

French Fashions

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, February 20, 2003; Page A39

A lot of people who never thought they would are saying "Vive la France" and humming "La Marseillaise" when they think John Ashcroft is not around.

Resistance to war on Iraq is personified by the foreign minister of France, Dominique de Villepin, whose superbly cut suits and felicitously crafted speeches have made him a matinee idol and the spokesman par excellence of the millions who marched for peace all over the Western world last weekend.

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Hating France is not easy: Besides its natural beauty, it produces people like fashion designer Louis Feraud, who performs miracles with a bolt of wool, and chefs who can transform spinach into food for the gods. Disliking Frenchmen is not a problem. The disdain they display for visitors who fail to speak their language with an accent worthy of the French Academy has motivated many U.S. travelers to dash through Paris on their way to Rome, where mangling of the native tongue is not considered a crime but rather endearing.

De Villepin knows that his country's threatened Security Council veto has caused a flood of crude jibes on Capitol Hill. It was trés chic up there to speak of France as irrelevant, weak and above all ungrateful. De Villepin made an eloquent plea for peace on the grounds that Old Europe is painfully aware of "wars, occupation and barbarity." He thanked the United States for bailing France out of two world wars. In World War I, it lost well over a million young men. In World War II, it was overrun and occupied by Nazis. Some of its most beautiful countryside and seascapes are soaked in blood.

The chamber burst into rare applause when he finished. Colin Powell, who made the case against Saddam Hussein, if not for war, in the same spot, did not get any cheers.

Over the weekend France picked up a host of allies who boiled through the streets of two continents. Tony Blair saw the daunting sight of the largest peace rally in British history. Rome, our other ally, had a million in its squares. Tom Ridge, Department of Homeland Security chief, had just announced the Code Orange level of a terrorist alert and suggested a remedy of duct tape and plastic sheets, which the handymen of the nation instantly recognized as a recipe for suffocation.

And then a higher power, no respecter of the world's only superpower, checked in. It snowed. A historic foot and a half fell Sunday and Monday. It fell on hawk and dove alike. It fell on the presidential motorcade -- the president was stuck behind a snowplow like many ordinary citizens, on his way home from Camp David. Although snow usually causes hysteria in Washington, this Presidents' Day dump was strangely soothing.

As the hours passed, the threat of terrorist attack receded. A terrorist could not get his car out of a snowdrift either. He could not fly. The outlook shrinks to the most practical minutiae. Our mayors treat their plow fleet like vestal virgins, which must be sent out too soon. This concern means they never go out on secondary streets, where the sidewalks have been buried and the street looks like a ski slope.

You don't think of Saddam Hussein at such moments. You're thinking about whether you can make it out to get a quart of milk. Will the restaurants along the way shovel their sidewalks? You think maybe George Bush might think twice about remaking the Middle East when we can't cope with a snowstorm.

It is a situation that produces unexpected heroes. Mine is the Washington Post delivery man, who, I swear, could get through a nuclear attack. He delivers. He doesn't just leave the paper by my door, he tucks it up against it, so that I don't have to lean too far to pick it up. I wish he could be put in charge of U.S. mail delivery.

At the end of the storm, the French fielded another tiger for peace. President Jacques Chirac, who looks like Lyndon Johnson, started acting like him in an attempt to restrain 13 European Union candidates from voting with the United States on the need for war. Chirac, with the highhandedness LBJ practiced in the Senate, told off the wannabes -- 13 former communist nations -- that they had "missed a great opportunity to be silent." Tony Blair demurred at this manifest arrogance from the county of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Meanwhile, Turkey demonstrated what the "coalition of the willing" that George Bush so often cites really means: willing at a price. First, Turkey got $4 billion for giving us space for a second front. But now, with American troopships headed its way, Turkey is holding a gun to Uncle Sam's head. They're talking $10 billion. They deny they're greedy; it's just that 94 percent of the country is against the war.

With allies like that it's no wonder the cakewalk is losing momentum, n'est-ce pas?


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