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In Louisiana, Concerns Over France-Bashing

Don't expect to find "freedom fries" here. And forget about horse-and-buggy rides through the narrow, balcony-lined streets of the "Freedom Quarter."

Louisiana has long played up its French heritage, especially in this 200th year since the Louisiana Purchase. State leaders and tourist-dependent businesses can only hope that tension between France and the United States over Iraq won't spoil the party.

"So many people in Louisiana actually speak French every day and feel French, and I think they're a little disappointed about the situation," says Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a French Acadian whose maiden name was Babineaux. "We're looking at a 200-year historical time when France was our greatest ally."

Even if Louisiana wanted to de-emphasize its French heritage and conform to what many here believe is a misguided show of patriotism, it would be impractical.

All along the state's border, signs welcome motorists with "Bienvenue en Louisiane."

Bilingual signs can be found throughout the southern part of the state, especially in Cajun areas surrounding Lafayette. In New Orleans, besides the French Quarter, there's an Avenue Charles de Gaulle, a French Market, even a Place de France where the French flag still flies. The symbol of New Orleans is the old French royal fleur-de-lis, which is also on the helmets of the Saints football team.

Statues throughout the state honor French historical figures from Joan of Arc to Jean Baptist Le Moyne de Bienville, the French explorer who founded New Orleans.

Next week, in fact, is the "Semaine de la Francophonie," which celebrates use of the French language in the state.

Elaine Clement, president of the Cajun heritage group Action Cadienne, was somewhat put off by Congress' decision this week to change House cafeteria menus to read "freedom fries" and "freedom toast."

"Are they going to change French kiss to freedom kiss?" she said.

There are no immediate plans to begin serving "freedom onion soup" at the Napoleon House bar and restaurant in the French Quarter.

"There are so many ties to French heritage here that that would be kind of like slapping your ancestors in the face, even though we're all patriotic," Napoleon House manager Sal Impastato says. "Although, I think it's true the French do owe us a little from World War II and they don't seem to want to recognize that."

That's not to say Louisiana is immune to the wave of French bashing sweeping America.

"We got a call in the office (Tuesday) from someone who basically told us we needed to go back to France," Clement says. "I've seen a kind of sentiment that if you're Cajun or French speaking you can't be American, and I think it's a lot of baloney."

Businesses like the Napoleon House are nervous about anti-French sentiment affecting events planned for the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase.

French President Jacques Chirac has been invited to New Orleans Dec. 20 to mark the date that the Louisiana Territories were signed over to the United States. President Bush also is invited.

A spokesman for the French Consulate says Chirac has expressed an interest in returning to the city, which he visited as a student, but had yet to make a decision. He said the consulate has received no reports of malevolent acts against any French interests or symbols in the state.

Blanco says she was told by the French embassy -- before recent diplomatic flare-ups -- that Chirac would almost certainly come if Bush does. The White House has yet to answer the invitation, she said.

"De Gaulle was here for the 150th anniversary, so we've been very optimistic," Blanco said. "Who knows, Louisiana may be well positioned to effect a reconciliation meeting."