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French wines feel the distaste
U.S. backlash against French wine and cheese hurts sales; wine importer hopes French "shut up."
April 16, 2003: 3:48 PM EDT

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - France's opposition to the Iraq war, which sparked an instant backlash against all thing French in the United States last month, has begun to take a toll on one of its top exports to this side of the Atlantic -- French wines.

American importers of French wine are reporting sharp drops in sales in the past two months, and other French products also have been affected, according to a report in the Washington Post Wednesday.

The report added that France's Federation of Wine Exporters is expected to meet Thursday to discuss the situation and a possible response.

The Post said the nation's principal business federation took the unusual step of publicly acknowledging the problem and appealed to consumers and businesses to keep political differences from affecting commerce.

Meanwhile, the Movement of French Enterprises (Medef) said some French businesses are suffering because of France's position on Iraq.

"It is necessary to say to those who are unhappy with the positions of French diplomacy that they are free to criticize, but they must keep products and services of our enterprises outside their quarrel," according to a comment from Medef.

Medef President Ernest-Antoine Seilliere was quoted as saying that the effects were "measured" but that contracts had been lost because of anti-French feeling in the United States. He declined to identify the companies affected, according to the Post story

Products decidedly French, such as wines, cheese and even French-owned hotel chains like Sofitel, have been on the receiving end of some angry American consumer sentiment ever since the start of the military engagement in Iraq

Some industry experts suggested that if the backlash explodes into a boycott of French products, it has the potential to affect $47 billion of bilateral trade between the United States and France.

The French government and business community had hoped that U.S. "francophobia" would dissipate quickly without hurting trade. Both fear that French companies will be excluded from contracts to rebuild Iraq.

The widespread view in Paris had been that calls in the U.S. media and from some politicians for commercial retaliation against the French were having little or no effect.

The French Foreign Ministry Wednesday declined to comment on the French business federation's statement, the Post said, adding the government didn't respond to private declarations. French officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, reiterated their previous position that they didn't expect any significant reduction of business with the United States. They noted that while American tourism in France is down about 20 percent, it had dropped even more in Britain, whose troops also fought in Iraq.

But the American backlash apparently is having little or no impact on business with Germany, the other major European nation that actively opposed the war. A survey by the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry of more than 300 German companies doing business in the United States found no effect, according to the report.

"It could be that France's position is considered to be fundamental, and ours is considered to be more or less an accident, in connection with the elections we had last autumn," said Michael Rogowski, president of the Federation of German Industries in Berlin. He referred to Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's exploitation of antiwar sentiment to win reelection in September.

U.S. importers of French products said the effect has been significant. Guillaume Touton, a Frenchman who is president of wine distributor Monsieur Touton Selection Ltd. in New York, said anti-French feeling cost him $ 500,000 in sales last month. French wines usually account for two-thirds of his business, but now his customers, mostly retail stores, want something else, the Post said.

"Typically, the guy says, 'No, I don't want French wine. Give me Spanish wine, Italian wine,' " said Touton, who has an office in Capitol Heights, Md.

Patricia Carreras, president of IC&A Inc., a home-decor business in New York that imports exclusively French products, said sales have been down 40 to 50 percent since February. Her small firm, with four employees, sells Limoges porcelain, hand-painted candles picturing Parisian scenes, and other French-oriented products to big mail-order houses and other large U.S. companies.

"It's a very, very deep reaction," said Carreras, who is French. "We would never have expected something so lasting. I think it has been accelerating even in the last four weeks."

Touton has tried to fight the trend by pledging to give $ 1 for every case of wine he sells to the USO to help U.S. troops in Iraq. He has done it for two weeks but it hasn't helped much. He said he thinks that business will pick up only when Chirac stops making anti-U.S. statements, the Post reported.

"We want to send the message to the French side to please do something. Or, if you don't want to do anything, then please shut up," Touton said.  Top of page

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