In the Hot Seat: Leon Bertrand

French minister delegate for tourism Leon Bertrand spoke with senior editor Kenneth Kiesnoski about the state of U.S. travel to France in light of political tensions between the countries.

Q: Are normal tourism relations possible given poor political relations between the U.S. and France?

A: I've always maintained the U.S. and France are like an old married couple: They love each other, although they don't always agree. [But] we can find means of cooperating on tourism, even if on the level of foreign politics there may be tensions. That's why the [upcoming] 60th anniversary [of D-Day] is extremely important to us: It's a chance for both sides to remember that despite differences, we made sacrifices together 60 years ago.

Q: Do you think D-Day commemorations will help heal hurt feelings and, perhaps, revive U.S. traffic?

A: Yes, because it reminds us that Franco-American relations are not only commercial but sentimental, as well. D-Day is a commemoration of our common ideals, such as patriotism. Since we started to [plan for D-Day] over a year ago, we've already [sensed] a comeback. As far as tourism goes, the first [three months] of 2004 was far more positive than in 2003. We're sure we're headed in the right direction.

Q: You've relaunched quality training for tourism workers. Can Americans -- some of whom consider "French hospitality" an oxymoron -- truly expect a warm welcome?

A: Actually, many Americans who come to France worried they may encounter [unfriendliness] experience an entirely different behavior ... and it changes their perceptions. That said, it's true hospitality is a problem area. A recent study [of] tourists visiting from 12 countries found there's still a lot of progress to be made. [That's why] we're launching a second Bienvenue en France campaign. I guarantee once Americans visit France they will have such a wonderful time they'll become our ambassadors.

Q: Some Jewish-American groups remain alarmed over recent anti-Semitic incidents in France. How are you addressing these concerns?

A: It's true that there's a problem that cannot be denied, but it's also true that the French government is being very firm. The prime minister has created a committee against racism and anti-Semitism that proposes ways to fight these negative trends, [and] the justice ministry increased penalties for those who commit anti-Semitic acts. I met with the Grand Rabbi of France, and we decided to establish what we'll call the Route of Jewish Memories. Jewish-Americans [can] meet with members of France's Jewish communities to visit places of worship and commemoration.

Q: Air France is your partner. Does its merger with Dutch carrier KLM alter its French character -- or affect your mission -- in any way?

A: The merger naturally gives a stronger global dimension to Air France.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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