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Rocky relations with France hit hard for Louisiana

Thursday, August 28, 2003

NEW ORLEANS -- When the relationship between the United States and France soured on the eve of the war in Iraq, no place had more to lose than Louisiana.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, when the fledgling United States bought French-controlled territory from Napoleon Bonaparte. And the state decided to go all out -- with museum exhibits, specially commissioned operas, a signature Beaujolais. The pageantry would show the world that Louisiana is open for business, mature beyond its image as "the place for fun and food and Mardi Gras and that's about it," said Damien Regnard, president of the French-American Chamber of Commerce in New Orleans.

Then came France's contention that President Bush was rushing recklessly to war. Bashing the French became sport in the United States.

In Louisiana, which is steeped in French heritage, the results of the divide between traditional allies were tangible and destructive.

Citing an inhospitable business climate in America, French companies -- which hold an estimated $1.8 billion in assets in the state -- canceled visits to scout out investment opportunities. A delegation of cancer and biotechnology specialists from Louisiana called off a research and investment trip to Lyon, France.

Louisiana officials concede that the timing of the rift could not have been worse; many of the ceremonies and exhibits marking the bicentennial played specifically on the long relationship enjoyed by France and the United States. One French museum reneged on a promise to lend New Orleans a priceless clock because its curators feared that American zealots would destroy it, Regnard said.

Soon, however, the clouds that have hung over the bicentennial might part. Diplomats are quietly and delicately attempting to piece together a meeting in New Orleans that would mark a public reconciliation of sorts for Bush and French President Jacques Chirac.

The meeting would take place Dec. 20 during a ceremony marking the culmination of the anniversary -- including a reenactment of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase treaties. The meeting could give the bicentennial more heft and publicity than it would have enjoyed if the spat between the United States and France hadn't developed in the first place.

The two leaders reaffirmed their alliance this summer after a private meeting in the French town of Evian, but tensions persist. Just this week, France resisted calls from the United States to build a more international military coalition in Iraq, saying that world leaders lacked a mandate from the United Nations.

According to diplomatic sources speaking on condition of anonymity, Bush and Chirac are tentatively scheduled to meet again late next month at the United Nations. There, they hope, Bush will invite Chirac to New Orleans.

The leaders are engaged in a diplomatic waltz, the sources said, with neither wanting to commit to attending first.

French officials said that while Chirac spent two years in Louisiana as a student in the 1950s and has fond memories of New Orleans, he is waiting to hear whether a formal invitation is coming. "I guess you would have to ask the White House if [Bush is] planning to do that," said Eric Bayer, an official with the French Consulate in New Orleans.

For their part, White House officials have brushed the issue aside. One of Bush's scheduling officers said: "I assure you this [bicentennial] event is not on anybody's radar screen at this point." But a French official said the negotiations are concrete enough that a tentative script has been proposed for the September exchange in New York: Bush would begin the conversation; Chirac would interrupt to ask when they can meet in public and declare their alliance secure; Bush would respond that the Dec. 20 event would be a natural venue.

There are complicating factors. Chief among them is the fact that several elected officials in Louisiana spent much of the spring lobbying to ban Chirac from attending. Louisiana officials earlier had invited the leaders on an informal basis; a formal invitation has to come from Bush because Chirac is a head of state, officials said.

Lousiana Gov. M.J. "Mike" Foster Jr., who once said on his radio show that Chirac had "gone off the deep end" in opposing the war, has since softened his views. Steven Johnston, a spokesman for the Republican governor, said this week that Foster now prefers to leave the decision on whether to invite Chirac to Bush.

Some in Louisiana, however, particularly conservatives, remain torn between the state's French roots and their own lingering vitriol toward France.

State Rep. A.G. Crowe, a Republican from Slidell, proposed a resolution demanding that Louisiana rescind its invitation to Chirac. That proposal died in the Legislature without a vote, but Crowe suggested in an interview this week that Chirac should turn down any invitation, in part because he could be in danger if he visits Louisiana.

"It is inappropriate for him to come here and raise a flag when we have soldiers getting killed," Crowe said. "Quite frankly, I don't think he will. If he does come, we'll have to spend $1 million or $2 million of our own money just to protect him. And we don't have the money." Such talk brought looks of dismay Tuesday at a bustling bistro in New Orleans' French Quarter.

There, a handful of civic leaders -- as well as some of the chefs and powerbrokers of the city's prized restaurants -- met to sample bottles of French Beaujolais commissioned for the bicentennial.

The gathering was another reminder of the subtle ways that the war, and the divide between France and the United States, has tarnished the celebration here. The bottles, affixed with the official bicentennial logo, were supposed to have been available in January so they could be sold in restaurants and liquor stores all year, fueling interest in the celebration.

"And then you-know-what happened," Regnard said Tuesday, a wine glass clasped in his left hand. "The distributors were reluctant to push French wines. Customers were reluctant to ask for it. And there were problems with Customs in Houston. We don't know if those problems were on purpose or not. We heard all kinds of things. We will never know." The distributor said the atmosphere in the United States last winter and spring was not conducive to launching French wines, not when some restaurateurs were scoring points with their customer base by pouring bottles of Dom Perignon down the toilette.

"The war was at a peak," said the distributor, Erik J. Christensen, a wine consultant with Glazer's Cos. of Louisiana. "The economy was at a low level. The restaurant business was off. It wasn't an ideal situation to kick off a tribute to the Louisiana Purchase -- and to France. So we took it off the market and put it on a shelf until things calmed down." So far, 300 cases of the wine have arrived from the Burgundy region of France. Most of it rests in an air-conditioned warehouse in St. Rose, a small community west of New Orleans on the Mississippi River. At the launch party, business leaders descended on the bottles lined up on the bar, happy perhaps that their jobs require them to drink before noon, but happy too that they are back in the business of pushing French wine.

Damien Abrusley, the wine steward at Rene Bistrot, where Tuesday's launch was held, said he would buy cases of at least two of the wines. Abrusley, who buys about 500 cases of wine each year for the restaurant, swirled some Beaujolais in his mouth, then scrawled notes on a pad resting on the bar: earth, blueberry, darker fruits.

"These wines have structure," he said. "They have tannins that make the mouth pull together. I'm very impressed. It would have killed me if we couldn't sell this stuff. Hopefully this will all be over soon." There are some signs that it will.

Beyond the diplomatic efforts, the New Orleans Museum of Art reported this week that its July attendance for an exhaustive exhibit on the Louisiana Purchase - featuring the chairs that Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson sat in while making their respective decisions -- was double that of July 2002. Planning for some of the canceled trade exchanges between France and Louisiana has been resurrected too.

"France and America will always be together," said Rene Bajeux, the executive chef and part-owner of Rene Bistrot. Bajeux, a portly, amiable man clad in a double-breasted chef's smock, is a native of the Alsace-Lorraine region of France but has been an American citizen since 1981.

"When countries are alike, that is when their differences are most visible," he said. "When you are allied with someone, it is like being married. You may have a disagreement when you go to bed. But when you wake up in the morning, you are still happy to be together. New Orleans is the perfect place to make that happen. They have to find their common ground again."


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