On U.S. campaign trail, France gets more respect

LEBANON, Ohio (Reuters) - The theme of change dominates this year’s U.S. presidential election and that may also apply to American attitudes toward France, long a target of Republican scorn.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy speaks during a news conference in Tbilisi September 8, 2008. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

Republican presidential candidate John McCain briefly poked fun at France while championing nuclear technology at a rally on Tuesday. But he also suggested Franco-U.S. relations may be in for a warmer era.

“We have to reprocess and we have to store spent nuclear fuel -- the French do it. My friends, we always want to imitate the French,” he said wryly to thundering laughter and cheers from the crowd of 5,500 people in Lebanon, Ohio.

“The point is ...” he began. But he stopped as cheers and laughter drowned out his words. He added a final thought about French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made no secret of his affinity for American culture since his election last year.

“We now have a pro-American president of France, by the way, which shows that if you live long enough anything can happen,” he said to more laughter.

Anti-French sentiment has long existed in the United States but widened into a chasm over the last eight years.

Many Americans were outraged at the refusal of prominent European nations, especially France and Germany, to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In the 2004 presidential election, Democratic challenger John Kerry’s ability to speak French was often pilloried by Republicans.

Then-Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay began one speech to fellow party members in 2004 by saying, “Good afternoon, or as John Kerry might say, bonjour” -- a contemptuous reference to Kerry’s French fluency.

Sarkozy has made clear he wants to renew a trans-Atlantic friendship that was badly strained by the Iraq war and a chilly personal relationship between the Bush administration and his predecessor, Jacques Chirac.

Among other things, he has shown a greater willingness than Chirac to pressure Iran over its nuclear program, a change welcomed by Washington.