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