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Romney resurrects a passé strategy

Mitt Romney greeted his parents, Lenore Romney and Governor George Romney of Michigan, at Orly Airport in Paris in 1967. He lived in France for about two years as a missionary. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

WASHINGTON -- Ah, the French. Those fussy, arrogant, cheese-eating, wine-drinking snobs.

The French supposedly looked down their noses at the United States when it was trying to protect the world from Saddam Hussein. So now they must endure the eternal condemnation of America.

Or so some Republican strategists believe. The US animus toward the French apparently is so strong, at least among GOP primary voters, that it survives even though in polls more Americans are taking the position of French President Jacques Chirac than President Bush: That the Iraq war was a mistake.

Last week, the Globe wrote about a leaked memo by strategists advising former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. Romney, the memo advised, could eventually win the GOP nomination, but it acknowledged that right now the "electorate is not where it needs to be for us to succeed."

One way to win over the doubters, the memo suggests: Run strongly against "bogeymen" like . . . France. This, despite the fact that a young Romney had lived for two years in France as a Mormon missionary. (Then again, Romney has spent most of his adult life in Massachusetts, which was also listed as a "bogeyman.")

Lampooning France has become such a staple of late-night comedy and films like "Talladega Nights" (in which the car driven by a French NASCAR champion has the Perrier logo where American cars have beer ads) that it is hard to remember that it was once motivated by serious issues.

During the '80s and '90s, US officials were often frustrated by France's go-it-alone attitude, including on issues of nuclear proliferation, but France remained a more reliable US ally than most countries. After 9/11, Chirac famously declared, "All French people stand by the American people."

But when it came to the Iraq war, France was a skeptic. Chirac and his then-foreign minister, the somewhat haughty and aristocratic Dominique de Villepin , seemed to take great pains to distance themselves from the American position, even though their underlying views were no different from those of many US allies.

They maintained that France stood willing to authorize force against Iraq, but not until weapons inspectors had more time to assess the situation. Villepin told the United Nations on Feb. 14, 2003, about a month before the war, "The question today is simple: Do we consider in good conscience that disarmament via inspections is now leading us to a dead end? Or do we consider that the possibilities regarding inspections . . . have still not been fully explored?"

France was hardly alone in believing that inspectors needed more time: Germany, Canada, Mexico, and many other countries with historically friendly relations with the United States felt the same way.

But the Bush administration, backed by many right-wing commentators, expressed a deeper contempt for France because of its supposed arrogance -- and the sense that Villepin, in particular, was trying to enhance France's position in the world at the expense of the United States.

In a big show of bravado, Republican congressman Bob Ney of Ohio, chairman of the House administration committee, in 2003 ordered the Capitol cafeteria to rename french fries "freedom fries" and called on other restaurants to do the same.

"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," declared Ney.

Subsequent events, however, have changed the picture dramatically, and not just for Ney, who confessed to an elaborate bribery scheme, declared that alcoholism had clouded his judgment, and resigned in disgrace.

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq seemed to validate France's call for continued inspections. Events since 2003 have unfolded in a manner closer to that predicted by Chirac than Bush.

Given the French government's reputation for arrogance, one would think it would be smugly thumbing its nose, but it's not. Chirac has reaffirmed his support for the United States, and the leading candidate to succeed him as president is openly calling for better trans-Atlantic relations.

But Romney's campaign still sees political gain in whipping up anger toward France. It's similar to Romney's decision last year to refuse State Police protection for Iran's moderate former president, who was speaking at Harvard, as a protest against Iran's current hard-line president. The common thread is that Romney seems to believe that presidential voters will respond only to the gesture, not the facts behind it.

It's not the French to whom Romney is condescending; he seems to think GOP primary voters have brie for brains.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

 GLOBE EDITORIAL: Romney's French complex (Boston Globe, 2/28/07)