Twelve years ago, as the United States launched a war in Iraq, France opposed the conflict, citing fears that such aggression would destabilize the Middle East and incite terrorism against the West. That stance drew the ire of American conservatives, who derided France in terms typically reserved for enemies, turning “French” into a synonym for cowardly and disloyal.
As the world now absorbs the spectacle of a lethal series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday night, many experts say the tragedy essentially affirms the very fears that prompted the French government to stay out of Iraq: Inchoate revulsion toward the U.S. and its allies and the perception they are waging war against Islam has crystallized into a jihadist movement capable of killing scores of people inside a city that stands as a monument to liberal Western traditions.
And just as France contends with the brunt of the militants' fury, many American conservatives now depict the country as a courageous and honorable vanguard in the face of that terrorist onslaught.
Since the Paris attacks, which killed 129 people and wounded 352, pro-French statements of solidarity have flooded in from American politicians across the political spectrum, including Republican presidential candidates. Rick Santorum wrote, “ Tonight we pray for and mourn with our French brothers and sisters. Today's horror is another reminder that we must be vigilant against evil.” Just three years ago, the former Pennsylvania senator questioned France’s commitment as an ally of the United States. “Name one time in the last 20 years that the French stood by us with anything,” he said.
The rhetorical shift toward France represents at once the GOP’s efforts to focus the 2016 debate on national security as well as the changing posture of France in a Middle East beset by the Islamic State: These days, France is solidly aligned with the U.S., joining forces in the airstrikes against ISIS in the swaths of Iraq and Syria under its control.
Republican presidential hopefuls have cast the Paris attacks as a validation of their beliefs that America requires a stronger military posture against ISIS. It also underscores a larger shift in American attitudes since the U.S. and French governments sparred over the Iraq War.
After the 9/11 attacks, as the debate over the proposed invasion intensified, Americans soured on France -- Gallup’s poll tracked a one-year 45 percent decline in the number of Americans saying they viewed France favorably, down from 79 percent in 2002 to just 34 percent in 2003. At the time, the French government was making the case that an invasion of Iraq would incite terrorism. "Such intervention could have incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region,” French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said in a February 2003 speech at the United Nations Security Council. He continued: “Would such intervention today not be liable to exacerbate divisions between societies, cultures, peoples, divisions that nurture terrorism?”
Researchers at New York University have since documented a significant increase in terrorism since the Iraq invasion -- and there are many, including Iraq War proponents such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who have said the invasion helped fuel the rise of the Islamic State, which has taken responsibility for the Paris attacks. In that sense, America’s Iraq-themed reaction to 9/11 is context for what some are now calling France’s own 9/11.
When the French government made its original case against the Iraq War, American conservatives depicted the longtime ally as a disloyal pariah. Congressional Republicans edited menus for restaurants in the House of Representatives, replacing “french fries” with “freedom fries.” Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, explained the change was a “small, but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure of many on Capitol Hill with the actions of our so-called ally, France.”
Then-Republican Speaker of the House Denny Hastert publicly considered new regulations on French wine and bottled water. Senior House Republican Rep. Peter King called France a “second-rate country” and GOP Rep. Jim Saxon proposed to prevent any French corporations from getting U.S. money for Iraq reconstruction after a war.
The administration of President George W. Bush also took action against France. In 2003, the U.S. military disinvited France from participating in previously scheduled Air Force exercises. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell -- who has since disowned his push for the Iraq War -- suggested there would be “consequences” for France opposing the invasion. After a Republican congressman sought a boycott of the Paris air show, the Pentagon announced it was limiting its participation in the event.
That, however, did not stop the France bashing. During the 2004 presidential campaign, high-profile conservatives attempted to take down then-Democratic nominee John Kerry by casting him in a French hue.
Former Republican House Majority Leader Tom Delay earned media attention for beginning meetings with the line, "Good afternoon, or as John Kerry might say, 'Bonjour.’" The Republican National Committee lampooned Kerry for having a cousin in the French government, and one Republican official famously declared Kerry “looks French.” Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., soon doubled down, declaring: “ It's not John Kerry's fault that he looks French, but it is his fault that he wants to pursue policies that have us act like the French. He advocates all kinds of additional socialism at home, appeasement abroad, and what that means is weakness for the future.”
After Friday’s attacks in Paris, Kerry tweeted out statements of solidarity -- and wrote the statement in French. If it had been 2012, that might have earned Kerry derision from the American right: During that year’s presidential campaign, then-frontrunner Newt Gingrich aired an ad attacking his GOP rival Mitt Romney and Kerry for ever speaking French. The next year, senior House Republican Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas equated France with weakness, saying America is “not France -- we don’t surrender.”
Two years later, though, Kerry’s use of French has been seen as an appropriate and uncontroversial response to the violence in Paris. In the intervening years, France's relationship with the United States changed dramatically when ISIS began gaining ground in Iraq and moved toward Baghdad in the summer of 2014.
Both the U.S. and France had citizens missing in Iraq and Syria -- mostly journalists and aid workers -- who were thought to have been taken hostage by the Sunni militant group. James Foley's beheading, which went viral in August 2014, raised concerns that perhaps more U.S. and European citizens were also in danger. That's when the U.S. and France, and several other countries in the EU, began sharing intelligence on the whereabouts of those missing. Suddenly, France, which had openly criticized America for its intervention in Iraq, joined the U.S. in its mission.
Just months after Foley's beheading, the United States formed an international coalition to degrade and destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria. France was one of the first countries to sign on to the coalition. Just a few years after they publicly opposed the American presence in Iraq, French pilots were climbing into aircraft to drop bombs.
Since then, the American right has muted its criticism of France, and has instead mostly criticized the Obama administration for not showing more solidarity with France's socialist government.
Following terrorist attacks in France in January, Obama was criticized by Republicans for not personally attending a rally in Paris against terrorism or sending any high-ranking officials to the event.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wrote in a Time Magazine op-ed, “Our President should have been there because we must never hesitate to stand with our allies.” A current presidential candidate, Cruz called Obama’s absence from the event “symbolic of the lack of American leadership on the world stage.”
Cruz’s presidential primary opponent, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, told CBS the White House made a “mistake” by not sending an administration official to the event. "You're reporting on it this morning. And it will be reported around the world. Especially at a time of such great pain, people will take cues from something like that," Rubio said at the time.
Texas conservative Rep. Randy Weber went so far as to liken Obama to Adolf Hitler, tweeting: “Even Adolph Hitler [sic] thought it more important than Obama to get to Paris. [For all the wrong reasons.] Obama couldn't do it for right reasons.”
Erin Banco contributed research to this report.