In March 2003, a gung-ho U.S. House of Representatives opted to rebrand french fries and french toast in the chamber's cafeteria as "Freedom fries" and "Freedom toast." The previous October, a rubber-stamp Congress had approved President George W. Bush's plans to invade Iraq. Among the United States' Western allies, France was the most outspoken in opposition.
French diplomats wanted more time for U.N. weapons inspectors to evaluate whether Saddam Hussein's Iraq possessed the "weapons of mass destruction" that the Bush administration was convinced it had. In hindsight, they, alongside many others opposed to the invasion, were right.
Nevertheless, American ire at France's refusal to go along with Bush's war was pronounced. And it led to the churlish renaming of fried foods. "This action today is a small but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure of many on Capitol Hill with the actions of our so-called ally France," said Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), then the chairman of the Committee on House Administration.
The move marked a nadir in U.S.-French relations — a moment that feels light years away from the present. Earlier this week, France played host to American, European and Arab delegations that convened to further develop a coordinated plan to roll back the advance of Islamic State militants in Iraq. It has issued some of the strongest statements on the need to crack down on the powerful terrorist organization. On Friday, French military jets struck an Islamic State logistics depot in Iraq, making France the second Western nation after the U.S. to join in the war effort.
The French, you see, have become Europe's new hawks.
In recent years, French governments of differing ideological stripes have led calls for intervention in a range of conflicts. In 2011, conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy authorized airstrikes in the Ivory Coast to avert a crisis that some observers feared could lead to ethnic cleansing. He also rallied NATO allies in 2011 to join in a bombing campaign that would help destroy the regime of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi. In the years since, NATO countries have watched on the sidelines as post-Gaddafi Libya imploded; just this past week, France called for a new intervention.
That's because Sarkozy's Socialist successor, François Hollande, has been equally hawkish about fighting insurgencies and stabilizing war zones. Under Hollande, France deployed troops in Mali to combat al-Qaeda-linked rebel fighters in 2013. The French have also been far more suspicious of the nuclear negotiations taking place between the West and Iran, and it dubbed an agreement hatched in November as "a fool's game." A year ago, when the United States failed to win Western support for airstrikes on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hollande's government stoutly backed the Obama administration's plans, even as the British Parliament voted against intervention, and was ready to launch its own strikes.
Sarkozy had branded himself an "Atlanticist," a gesture to an earlier moment of cooperation with the United States that Hollande has also embraced. Ahead of Hollande's state visit to Washington earlier this year, Time magazine's London bureau chief, Catherine Mayer, summed up the new spirit of Gallic-American bonhomie:
Gone are the days when the U.S. dismissed the French as cheese-eating surrender monkeys for their refusal to get involved in the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Hollande looks like Obama’s most reliable ally, especially as the French leader has signalled his magnanimity on the issue that could have thrown cold water on the burgeoning bromance: the NSA’s spying on French citizens. As Hollande told TIME in an exclusive Jan. 24 interview, he intends to forgive if not to forget, looking instead for "a new cooperation in the field of intelligence."
What has motivated this change? A strong streak of moralism has come to the fore in French foreign policy, peddled by a coterie of internationalist public intellectuals. The most visible, Bernard Henri-Lévy, was a confidant of Sarkozy and is even credited with stirring up action against Gaddafi in Libya. But there is a clear pragmatism underlying French actions, as well.
First, both Sarkozy — toward the end of his tenure — and Hollande — for pretty much most of it, so far — faced low popularity ratings in polls. As domestic concerns mount, the prospect of decisive, robust action abroad has its allures. France's political system allows the executive greater license to launch such interventions.
Money also talks. In 2013, orders for French weapons rose 43 percent from the previous year, reaching almost $9 billion, according to the French Defense Ministry. France is one of the world's biggest arms exporters, and its interests in the Middle East, including Paris's hawkishness on Iran, appear more and more closely aligned with those of valued customer Saudi Arabia. The French, in conjunction with the Saudis, are trying to finalize a $3 billion arms deal that would strengthen the Lebanese military — an initiative that, the Saudis hope, would help counter the influence of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which many see as an Iranian proxy and whose fighters have aided the Assad regime in Syria's civil war.
The proposed coalition of Arab states that the United States hopes will join in the effort against the Islamic State includes many authoritarian states with terrible human rights records. It makes the bluster and naivety of the age of Freedom fries look all the more distant.