Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado didn’t think he’d spark a trade war when he refused to meet with a French consular official last month. Yet the French embassy is now threatening an economic boycott of his state because of the snub, in an incident that is quickly coming to resemble France’s behavior in the notorious XYZ Affair of 1798.
The current flap won’t lead to an undeclared naval war, as happened two centuries ago, but that may have more to do with landlocked Colorado lacking a navy than with any feelings of goodwill between Owens and French diplomats.
The controversy began with a letter French consul general Jean-Luc Subiude sent to Owens in March asking to get together. Governors turn down requests like this all the time. Yet Owens didn’t just say no thanks to Mr. Subiude. “I will be unable to meet with you during your visit to Colorado,” he wrote. “I feel it would be inappropriate to do so at this time.”
Owens continued: “My feeling is that France’s actions over the past few months will have serious and long-term consequences on relations between our countries. I believe your government opposed our efforts in Iraq in order to advance the government’s popularity at home and to further France’s ambitions abroad.” He also noted that an uncle of his died in combat on French soil — on his 18th birthday, no less.
In relaying these thoughts, Owens surely spoke for many Americans. A year ago, 79 percent of Americans had a “very favorable” or “mostly favorable” opinion of France, according to a Gallup poll. This year, right before the Iraq war, that figure dropped to 34 percent — and 64 percent of Americans had an outright “unfavorable” view.
Two weeks later, Jean-Francois Boitton of the French embassy in Washington, D.C., retaliated. “I draw from your comments,” he sniffed in a letter to Owens, “the conclusion that I should strongly discourage French firms from considering investing in a state where they are not welcome.” He went on to write that the governors of Maryland and Mississippi recently “extended a warm welcome to French investors.”
At no point did Owens say the French aren’t welcome in Colorado, and he didn’t even encourage the people of his state to quit eating Dannon yogurt, drinking Evian water, or buying Michelin tires. He even avoided taking a cheap shot at French wine, which has seen sales in the United States slip by as much as 30 percent this spring. Owens simply declined to meet with the representative of a government that has been singularly unhelpful to the United States in recent months, and explained his reasons in plain English.
The French response — and specifically its threat of economic blackmail — recalls a similar incident from the 18th century, when French officials expressed faux outrage over “insults” tendered by President John Adams and demanded bribes to meet with American diplomats who were trying to avert war between the two countries.
In the 1790s, the United States had agreed to a commercial treaty with Britain, and in doing so annoyed France. French privateers preyed on American shipping, employing the thin justification that any vessel carrying even a single item of British cargo was in effect a belligerent. By 1797, as John Adams was coming into the presidency, France had seized more than 300 American ships.
Adams wanted to repair relations with the nation that had made victory at Yorktown possible, but he also knew that he must prepare for the worst. He embraced an early version of the peace-through-strength doctrine, advocating the construction of warships and sending three intermediaries across the Atlantic.
The American diplomats arrived in Paris in October 1797. French Foreign Minister Talleyrand received them for 15 minutes before bidding them adieu. Then, after several days of no contact, Talleyrand sent three agents to deliver a secret message: The foreign minister would negotiate with the Americans if they gave him a personal douceur — a “sweetener” — of $250,000. In addition, France itself would require a loan of $10 million to make up for the “insults” of President Adams.
“It is expected that you will offer the money,” said one of Talleyrand’s men. “What is your answer?”
Charles Pinckney replied: “No! No! Not a sixpence.” (A more popular version of the story has him saying “Millions for defense, but not a penny for tribute!” It appears he didn’t actually speak these words, however.)
The American envoys prepared a series of coded dispatches describing the French demands. They were received the following March in Philadelphia, then the national capital. In these documents, Talleyrand’s agents were identified X, Y, and Z — and the ensuing hullabaloo has gone down in history as the XYZ Affair.
The dispatches were read to Congress and printed for the public. The reaction was immediate and intense. Just as the French-owned Accor hotel chain stopped flying French flags outside its U.S. Sofitel locations earlier this year, tricolor emblems that had been worn to express solidarity with the French Revolution suddenly vanished from sight. A songwriter penned the patriotic anthem “Hail Columbia!”
The country braced for war. Congress approved funds for harbor fortifications, authorized attacks on French privateers in American waters, and created a Department of the Navy separate from the War Department, plus the Marine Corps. George Washington agreed to come out of retirement and head a new army. Adams posted a sentry outside his door, for his own security.
Neither country formally declared war on the other, but they went to war nonetheless. Historians sometimes call it the Quasi War. As Abigail Adams wrote, “Why, when we have the thing, should we boggle at the name?”
For more than two years, the United States and France clashed at sea, mostly in the West Indies. The new Navy performed well, winning many engagements — including four of the five principal ones — and capturing some 80 French ships.
The war might have expanded, except the British navy kept Napoleon’s army bottled up in Egypt. There was no way France could hope to defeat the young republic. So Talleyrand said that he would no longer require a payoff before meeting with American diplomats. Adams sent three more representatives to Paris, In October 1800, the United States and France signed a treaty that ended their hostilities, at least for the time being.
Perhaps Bill Owens and Jacques Chirac will sign a treaty, too — but not before France quits demanding a tribute from Colorado.