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The French exception

Walking along Manhattan's 23rd Street the other day, I noticed an ad on a bus-stop shelter for the History Channel's new series about the French Revolution: "For Two Hours, It Won't Kill You to Love the French" it said.

As a Parisian who recently moved to New York, I have not personally encountered any American hostility. But I am amazed by the proliferation of French-bashing in the media.

If you go on the Internet, you have a vast choice of anti-French Web sites, some selling products (T-shirts emblazoned with insults, for instance), others offering long lists of hilarious "French jokes."

Of course, you could argue that the excesses of bloggers do not paint an accurate picture of American sentiment. You could argue, too, against reading too much into the New York Post's references to President Jacques Chirac of France as a "weasel." It's true that the days of "freedom fries" are behind us and that any recent dent in French exports is more likely the result of a weak dollar than a boycott of French goods.

But the hysteria of French-bashing has given way to a more insidious form of bias. For example, it was humbling for us French to watch Democratic operatives desperately trying to hide John Kerry's French relatives _ who had come to be with him at the Democratic convention _ from the news media. And it was rather funny to hear the advice given by some TV pundits to Kerry minutes before the first debate: "Don't speak French." (He didn't, and it made no difference.)

Then there are the jabs delivered by all those late-night comedians. It has become fashionable _ even commonplace _ in the American media to associate the French with things cowardly, despicable, unfaithful, ungrateful or foul-smelling, in addition to the (more conventional) complaint about Gallic arrogance.

Here in the country of political correctness, where the mainstream media tread on eggshells when talking about race, religion, nation or ethnicity, French-bashing has become politically correct.

Why the French exception? Several reasons spring to mind. France's opposition to the war in Iraq is the first, of course. This has infuriated the political establishment. And during times of war, patriotic sentiment can quickly become xenophobic. Having cast themselves in the role of Cassandra (who was endowed with the gift of prophecy but not with the talent of making herself heard), the French should not be surprised by the American Agamemnon's resentment.

To go back in history a bit, France is one of the few major European countries to have never undergone any widespread immigration to America. So there is no French minority to pander to.

Also, the French delude themselves in valorizing their historical relationship to America: Lafayette vs. Eisenhower, the Statue of Liberty vs. the Marshall Plan _ there is something wrong, even shocking, about comparing France's help during America's War of Independence with the role of America in the two World Wars.

As a French citizen, I am appalled that the French news media, the judicial system and members of Parliament have shown so little interest in the French role in the scandal surrounding the United Nations' "oil-for-food" program.

Does that make me anti-French? The very notion of being "against" a nationality _ American, Israeli, Arab _ is repellent to me. It is one thing to disagree over political matters or to be severely critical of another country's policy. It is quite another to indulge in a general expression of contempt, or even hatred, for a society, its history, its culture and its people.

Americans themselves are sometimes confronted with this kind of absurd hostility abroad. Of all nationalities, they should be the first to stay away from it. After all, diversity and respect for other cultures are among the core values on which America was founded.

It did not kill the French to be hated for two years. But it did us no good, and did not help Americans much, either. So what about liking us again? For starters, just for two hours.

Antoine Audouard is the author of Farewell, My Only One.

The New York Times