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French get a bash or boost

International politics plays out among local French, their businesses and customers, who are anything but ambivalent

What's the cost of a French connection these days?

In Portland it seems to run the gamut from unmannerly confrontations to an apparent boycott of some French businesses ÑÊand, in one case, vulgar graffiti scrawled across a store window (although the owner is not certain it was related to current political tensions).

With France and the United States at loggerheads over the Bush administration's plans for a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, some Portlanders who resent the French government's opposition to the war are making a point of it.

A French woman was accosted in an upscale downtown restaurant by a group of people who had noticed her accent and loudly reminded her that Americans liberated France in World War II and berated her for French 'ingratitude.'

A French waiter at Il Fornaio, an Italian restaurant in Northwest Portland, was taken aback when his guests demanded that French beans in the soup they had ordered be served on the side. 'It was a joke,' he says, 'but in poor taste, I thought. I offered to replace myself with an American waiter.'

At Le Bouchon, 517 N.W. 14th Ave., owner Christian Geffard has seen a 50 percent drop in his business just in the last three weeks. Before that, he says, his restaurant had bustled with patrons.Ê

'But politics right now are not in favor of the French,' Geffard says. 'It's unfortunate, because French people living in America are often Americans.'

Geffard and partner Claude Musquior have both lived in the United States for 20 years. 'While the economy is not good,' Geffard says, 'people are clearly boycotting French restaurants.'

Didier Blanc, owner of La Provence Bakery and Bistro in Lake Grove, says that he had intended to expand his business, which employs 55 Americans, but is now reconsidering. Ê

He is nervous now about carrying a French name, he says.

'I've seen business drop 5 to 10 percent recently,' he said.ÊWhile part of that is because of the economy, anger over France's position on the possible war has accounted for at least half the decline, he believes.

'We could be on the wrong side of things,' he says. 'I would put that (expansion) on the back burner if it's clear that French visibility is wrong. If only we knew.'

Theirry Meine ÑÊowner of the French Wrap, a creperie at Strohecker's on Southwest Patton Road ÑÊwas planning to open a new French restaurant on Northwest Glisan Street to be called Cafe Nis. But, like Blanc, he is having second thoughts and may delay the restaurant's opening.

What Meine is hearing from his French compatriots in town makes him nervous.Ê'I think we need to talk about this,' he insists. 'It leaves a question mark for French citizens.ÊWill products be boycotted? Will businesses be boycotted?'

Or even defaced?

Dominique Vidal of Souleiado, a store on Northwest 23rd Avenue that sells fabrics, dinnerware, gourmet foods and collectibles from Provence, discovered a vulgar word smeared across his plate glass shop windows several weeks ago. Vidal washed it off, mentioned the incident to a few friends and tried to forget it.

The incident, he concedes, might well be unrelated to French-American tensions. 'I don't want to seem like a victim,' Vidal says.

Supporters step forward

Taking a proactive stand, one French business is honoring American enterprise.ÊYves Le Meitour of Le Meitour Gallery on Southwest Capitol Highway plans to respond to the recent exhibit of French impressionists' work at the Portland Art Museum with a showing of Oregon impressionists at his gallery. The French title, 'Les Impressionistes en Oregon,' is intended to stress the positive relationship between the two countries.ÊÊ

Other French business owners have been gratified by the expressions of support they have received.

Bruno Gonsard, who owns Chez Machin, a French restaurant on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, has talked with customers about concerns over possible boycotting. 'They tell me if that happened, they would come to my restaurant more often.'

Gerard Philippon of Versailles in the Pearl, a Northwest Portland furniture store, says, 'People have said, 'Thanks to the French for slowing things down a bit.' 'Ê

Henry Gilbert of Winterborne, a French restaurant in Northeast Portland, had a similar experience. 'Two customers said, 'You're French. Let me shake your hand,' ' he says.

And there were a lot of 'Vive la France' signs evident in Saturday's antiwar march in downtown Portland.