An American backlash against French products and businesses has started to bite, dashing hopes here that appeals in the United States to punish France economically for opposing the war in Iraq would go unheeded.
American importers of French wine are reporting sharp drops in sales in the past two months, and other French products also have been affected. The Federation of Wine Exporters has called a meeting Thursday to discuss how to respond.
The nation's principal business federation took the unusual step of publicly acknowledging the problem, conceding today that sales, recruitment and business contacts have been hurt. It appealed to consumers and businesses to keep political differences from affecting commerce.
"Certain French enterprises are suffering today from the differences that have arisen among states over the Iraqi question," the Movement of French Enterprises (Medef) said. "It is necessary to say to those who are unhappy with the positions of French diplomacy that they are free to criticize, but they must keep products and services of our enterprises outside their quarrel."
Medef President Ernest-Antoine Seilliere said at a news conference that the effects were "measured" but that contracts had been lost because of anti-French feeling in the United States. He declined to identify the companies affected.
The business federation provided no figures on the effect on French exports to the United States, which last year were valued at $28.4 billion.
The French government and business community had hoped that U.S. "francophobia" would dissipate quickly without hurting trade. Both fear that French companies will be excluded from contracts in rebuilding Iraq.
The widespread view in Paris had been that calls in the U.S. media and from some politicians for commercial retaliation against the French were having little or no effect.
The news that the boycott is significant will also increase pressure on President Jacques Chirac from business and some members of his party to mend relations with Washington. Chirac's government has toned down its antiwar talk, and French officials have emphasized the need for pragmatism and moderation regarding sensitive issues such as how postwar Iraq is to be governed.
Chirac telephoned President Bush yesterday. The leaders, speaking for the first time in two months, had what U.S. aides characterized as a "businesslike" conversation.
The French Foreign Ministry today declined to comment on the French business federation's statement, saying the government didn't respond to private declarations. French officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, reiterated their previous position that they didn't expect any significant reduction of business with the United States. They noted that while American tourism in France is down by about 20 percent, it had dropped even more in Britain, whose troops also fought in Iraq.
The American backlash apparently is having little or no impact on business with Germany, the other major European country that actively opposed the war. A survey by the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry of more than 300 German companies doing business in the United States found no effect.
"It could be that France's position is considered to be fundamental, and ours is considered to be more or less an accident, in connection with the elections we had last autumn," said Michael Rogowski, president of the Federation of German Industries in Berlin. He referred to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's exploitation of antiwar sentiment to win reelection in September.
German business groups and the German Embassy in the United States have scheduled a meeting in Washington next month with U.S. businesses and politicians to try to make sure that no difficulties arise in U.S.-German trade.
U.S. importers of French products said the effect has been significant. Guillaume Touton, a Frenchman who is president of wine distributor Monsieur Touton Selection Ltd. in New York, said anti-French feeling cost him $500,000 in sales last month. French wines usually account for two-thirds of his business, but now his customers, mostly retail stores, want something else.
"Typically, the guy says, 'No, I don't want French wine. Give me Spanish wine, Italian wine,' " said Touton, who has an office in Capitol Heights, Md.
W.J. Deutsch & Sons Ltd. of White Plains, N.Y. -- the No. 1 U.S. importer of French wines, as measured by cases shipped -- said its sales dropped 10 percent in the past two months. Bill Deutsch, its president, wouldn't divulge specific figures but said his sales were down by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"We have seen French wines decreasing," Deutsch said. "We've seen stores take French wines off the floor of their store. We've seen major chains stop the advertising of French wines in their weekly ads." He reported substantial increases in sales of Italian, Australian and Spanish wines.
Patricia Carreras, president of IC&A Inc., a home-decor business in New York that imports exclusively French products, said sales have been down 40 to 50 percent since February. Her small firm, with four employees, sells Limoges porcelain, hand-painted candles picturing Parisian scenes, and other French-oriented products to big mail-order houses and other large U.S. companies.
"It's a very, very deep reaction," said Carreras, who is French. "We would never have expected something so lasting. I think it has been accelerating even in the last four weeks."
The importers, angry and frustrated, said the government in Paris did not comprehend the effect of its war position on French businesses.
Touton has tried to fight the trend by pledging to give $1 for every case of wine he sells to the USO to help U.S. troops in Iraq. He has done it for two weeks but it hasn't helped much. He said he thinks that business will pick up only when Chirac stops making anti-U.S. statements.
"We want to send the message to the French side to please do something. Or, if you don't want to do anything, then please shut up," Touton said.