Falling in love with France again

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PARIS -- As the politicians and diplomats of the U.S. and France continue to struggle with the political, economic and emotional fallout from the Iraq war imbroglio, I went to France.

That's something fewer Americans are doing this year, either because they are angry at France or concerned that they won't be welcomed.

French tourism officials may not be able to explain France's political position to every American's satisfaction, but they can reassure Americans that they remain welcome and safe in France. I found on my nine-day tour that many average French citizens are perplexed by the notion that France would be less than welcoming.

Tourism officials have worked furiously to counteract the political scuffling and the allegations of rampant French anti-Americanism.

In May, the French Government Tourist Office launched an extensive U.S. recovery campaign under the theme "Let's Fall in Love Again." It also organized special events such as a July 4 day of free champagne and flowers for U.S. tourists who showed up at participating Paris hotels, restaurants and shops.

They really like us

The common refrain I heard again and again, from Parisian restaurant wait staff to social activists in Montpellier, was that the French still like Americans -- despite a pronounced distaste for the Bush administration.

At the Mediterranean resort of La Grande Motte, Laure de Carriere, a public relations executive from Montpellier, said that despite the political differences, "for the French, the [friendship] situation hasn't changed at all," adding, "Americans are being much harder on us than we are being on them."

At the Hyatt Regency Paris Madeleine, General Manager Christophe Lorvo said, "French people may think the Bush administration is responsible for [the war], but they realize American individuals are not involved in making such decisions."

Lorvo said his staff is "amazed to see how Americans act so surprised when they arrive in Paris and find that we're not such bad people."

And despite myriad television images of antiwar demonstrations on French city streets, I found little physical evidence of anti-U.S. sentiment left in the country: a rainbow peace flag still fluttering from a window, as in Arles, or graffiti pronouncing "America = World Cancer" scrawled on a billboard in the Paris Metro.

Granted, I was in France on an escorted familiarization trip for the U.S. travel press and may have been shielded to a degree from overt anti-Yankee feeling.

Our hosts, I sensed, took pains to ensure positive experiences, but we were free to explore and interact on our own -- and my one-on-one encounters across France were uniformly pleasant.

Our group's one collective sighting of anti-American propaganda -- giant graffiti reading "U.$. Go Home" spraypainted in plain view of our table at the restaurant in Arles that our embarrassed escorts had booked for lunch -- was a source of much sympathetic amusement rather than worry, simply because we otherwise felt so welcome and secure.

Talking politics

None of which is to say that U.S. tourists might not get an unwanted earful regarding international relations from locals; unlike Americans, the French consider politics appropriate fodder for casual conversations.

Over drinks in Paris, guidebook author and tour guide Gary Lee Kraut said Americans shouldn't take it personally.

"Sometimes the French start giving their opinions, simply because they have them -- but it's not mean-spirited."

A resident of the French capital since 1988 and author of "Paris Revisited: The Guide for the Return Traveler," Kraut said, "A lot of this is in our own imagination."

Hotels: The front line?

The hotels here are like the proverbial canaries in the coal mine: they're the first to feel any poison in the air.

At the Concorde Hotels Group's newly updated Hotel Ambassador in Paris, director of sales Herve de Gouvion Saint-Cyr told me business from the U.S. this year remains down 50% from 2002, largely because individual leisure clients seem to have abandoned France for the time being.

"A few have started to come back, but it's difficult," he said. "They doubt the way they'll be welcomed and what the general French reaction to Americans will be."

So the Ambassador's guest relations manager is paying special attention to the needs of those U.S. clients who do show up -- from the very moment they check in, as the hotel is probably their first experience with French service culture.

It's not just business, but national pride, said Saint-Cyr.

"As both a hotelier and as a Parisian, I am so happy to hear someone speaking 'American.' I will not hesitate to stop and try to help someone," he said. "We're all so badly affected by the negative publicity about France, we're doing 200% more just to show Americans we are happy to see them."

In Rouen -- a port city on the Seine boasting a wealth of well-preserved, half-timbered medieval houses -- Amaury Daugreilh, director of the small Hotel du Vieux Marche, told me that he, like many Americans, has at times struggled to separate the personal from the political.

"I had a group of 45 Americans check in the day Bush said 'OK' to war, and when he did, they all were very happy and cheering," he recalled. "At that moment, I was upset and didn't feel friendly towards them, but I told myself that, like us, not all Americans are alike.

"But now I don't think most French are angry at Americans, and I myself like them," Daugreilh added. "I think we have a lot to learn from you, just as you can learn from us."

Au revoir, adieu

The highlight of the trip for this born-again Francophile came at the end of a dinner with business associates at a stereotypically smoky Parisian bistro the final night of my stay.

After delivering the bill, our waitress touched my arm and began telling me something in French. With my rusty, college-level command of the language, I translated it thus:

"I noticed your accent, and I wanted to tell you that hearing your New York voice warms me to the bottom of my heart."

She said it nervously, with a broad smile and a few tears welling up in her blue eyes.

And I have to say, I think I had indeed fallen in love again.

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