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French Jokes Gain Wide Audiences

With the nation tired of hearing jokes about reality television, humorists are looking for a new target -- and have homed in on one that has caught the attention of a frustrated American public.

"While grassroots opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the gulf grows, so, too does a new wave of support from Britain, Spain, Portugal, Poland, the Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary, Denmark ... The leaders of those nations last week published an op-ed article in several international newspapers, thanking the United States for ensuring peace in Europe in the 20th century. Not surprisingly, the next day, France sent in a very snippy letter to the editor," quips The Daily Show's Web site. 

Living up to its usual credo of "constantly fixing the truth so you don't have to," the Comedy Central standout has hit on a growing sentiment about France since the nation expressed reluctance to support an invasion of Iraq.

It has plenty of company:

David Letterman: "France wants more evidence [of Iraqi violations]. The last time France wanted more evidence, it rolled right through France with a German flag."

Dennis Miller: "The only way the French are going in is if we tell them we found truffles in Iraq."

Jay Leno: "I don't know why people are surprised that France won't help us get Saddam out of Iraq. After all, France wouldn't help us get the Germans out of France!"

Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.: "Do you know how many Frenchmen it takes to defend Paris? It's not known, it's never been tried."

Blunt again: "Somebody was telling me about the French Army rifle that was being advertised on eBay the other day -- the description was: 'Never shot. Dropped once.'"

And even an unwitting French President Jacques Chirac: "As far as I'm concerned, war always means failure."

"The joke thrives on one caricature. It takes one stereotype and just plays on it," Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes told Foxnews.com. "President Clinton was sexually unrestrained. President Bush is dumb. France is full of cowards and ingrates."

Barnes explained in a recent article the joke is catching on because many people believe the United States bailed out France in World Wars I and II, among other conflicts, and they need to show a little more gratitude.

"Do you know it only took Germany three days to conquer France in World War II? And that's because it was raining," said John Xereas, manager of the DC Improv.

The caricature of a weak French military garners laughs regardless of whether people support or oppose military force against Iraq.

"Everybody hates the French. Even the French hate the French," said political humorist Will Durst, whose articles can be read on WillDurst.com. "It's their attitude. It's the snottier than thou. It's nice to pin prick the pomposity.

"It's seeing a guy making fun of you for the way you dress step out of the toilet with toilet paper on his shoes and he doesn't know it," Durst said, describing why the giggles ripple.

Of course, "everybody" may be a strong word. Yankee Doodle, webmaster of Francestinks.com and Germanystinks.com, said he has gotten a lot of appreciation for his two Web sites, which list news, jokes and photos, but has caught considerable grief from some French and German readers, including a too-crude-to-print letter from an e-mailer he traced back to Radio France and a German missive that translates roughly to "You Americans are dumber than I thought."

"The letter was signed 'Jean Luc Picard,'" Doodle said of the German e-mailer, noting that Picard is the lead character in the television series Star Trek: Next Generation. "Now who's dumb? He signed his name as a French character played by an English actor on an American TV show."

Doodle said the mail he has gotten, including joke submissions, is 75 percent about the French and 25 percent about the Germans.

"People feel close to France. That makes people feel hurt when somebody who you thought was your friend says 'screw you,'" Doodle said.

On the other hand, the Belgians, who also have expressed antipathy toward any military action in Iraq, have gone virtually free of the wrath cast on the other nations.

"That's kind of like kicking people when they're down," Durst joked.

Doodle, like many corners of America -- freedom fries have replaced french fries, is taking the joke to the next level. The Francestinks.com and Germanystinks.com sites are planning a Great American Tea Party 2003, akin to the Boston Tea Party, and something of a boycott of French products.

"On March 4th, Fat Tuesday -- we don't say Mardi Gras because that's French -- we are going to have everyone drop all their wine in the toilet, flush, the water level drops and we register our vote that way," he said, adding that he hopes people don't go out and replace their French wine right away.

Adds Durst: "In Napa Valley, they're stuck. They are really anti-war but they are for a boycott. It's a conundrum." 

Doodle said that while he suspects relations between France and the United States will be affected by the impasse for a long time to come, he doesn't expect France to change its mind about engagement in Iraq anytime soon.

And that doesn't matter, really. It's France's refusal to back the United States that sticks in people's minds.

"We weren't looking for France to give us their one leaky aircraft carrier, it's about whose side you are on," Doodle said.

"As an ally, if its national interest and security is involved, just go along," Barnes said. "We don't need troops. No one is asking for them."

Besides, they wouldn't be worth much anyway, according to jokesters and the deadly serious.

According to Jed Babbin, former deputy undersecretary for defense for George H.W. Bush: "Going to war without the French is like going deer hunting without your accordion."