France back in US favor amid Libya, Japan crises

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France's assertive response to deadly unrest in Libya and its embrace of nuclear power amid Japan's atomic crisis drew praise this week from US politicians who eight years ago would likely have sung a very different tune.

French warplanes carried out four air strikes in Libya at 1645 GMT Saturday, destroying several armored vehicles of forces loyal to embattled Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi, the French military said.

The strikes came before US warships and a British submarine fired at least 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Libya against Kadhafi's anti-aircraft missiles and radar.

"One general rule of politics: Be as bold as the French and you'll never go wrong," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told AFP this week as he hailed Paris's moves against Kadhafi.

That advice would have fallen on deaf ears in March 2003, when Paris's leadership of international opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq left two in three Americans with an unfavorable view of the country's oldest ally.

Lawmakers renamed their cafeterias' "French fries" as "Freedom fries," then-president George W. Bush's official Air Force One airplane served not "French toast" but "Freedom toast," and a New York Times foreign policy columnist Tom Friedman wailed that "France is becoming our enemy."

In 2011, Saddam Hussein is dead, US forces are looking to leave Iraq by year's end, pro-US French President Nicolas Sarkozy has replaced Jacques Chirac, and nearly three out of four Americans tell pollsters they like France.

"I love the French," Graham said Wednesday as he urged President Barack Obama to bring Washington's policy on Libya more in line with calls from Paris for a no-fly zone and France cementing ties with Kadhafi's opposition.

As for nuclear energy, Republican House Speaker John Boehner said Washington would learn from Japan's woes over a nuclear plant battered by an earthquake and tsunami, but that it should embrace France's heavy reliance on atomic power.

"Eighty-two percent of electricity produced in France comes from nuclear sources and have done so successfully for decades," he said approvingly.

"Let's understand what safeguards if any additional safeguards need to be put in place, but let's not just say like we have for the last 30 years we're not even going to look at because we're afraid of it," said Boehner.

The shift soon after the Iraq invasion, when it became clear that the stockpile of weapons of mass destruction at the core of the US case for war did not exist. It accelerated with Sarkozy's 2007 election.

"It's amazing the difference an election can make," Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas told AFP with a laugh when asked about the chasm between 2003 and 2011.

Cornyn said he had visited "very impressive" French nuclear facilities a few years ago, and called the country's reliance on atomic power plants to generate nearly 80 percent of its electricity "a good model for the United States."

To be sure, the historic love-hate relationship Americans have with France is not completely a thing of the past, as demonstrated by failed Republican presidential hopeful Fred Thompson.

"France: diplomatic recognition to Libyan rebels. Last time France took lead while US did nothing was b/c (because) America not discovered yet," he quipped in his Twitter feed on March 11.

And Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, an admirer of France's nuclear power program, has attacked Obama's health care overhaul and other policies as government overreach, Europe-style.

"Let me tell you something: we haven't forgotten. We will not let the people who spent the last two years trying to turn this country into France walk away from their record," he told fellow conservatives in early 2010.

Still, it's rarely been easier to find Republicans eager to profess their affection for France.

"Our stays in Paris have been wonderful. I've been to Normandy and all of the D-Day beaches. I guess I've probably spent the equivalent to 6-8 weeks of my life in France," said Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia.

Isakson, who joked that the French are more forgiving of his southern accent than New Yorkers are, happily shared the name of his favorite Paris restaurant though he could not say when he would dine there next.

"I don't know," he said. "But I'm getting hungry just thinking about it."

© 2011 AFP

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