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La France dans le regard des États-Unis

Frédéric Monneyron
Martine Xiberras

Autour de la crise irakienne

21- The Rumor « John Kerry is French » i.e. Haughty, Foppish, Elitist, Socialist, Cowardly and Gay: Anti-American

Jayson Harsin


Cet article convoque tout d’abord les théories de la construction de l’identité nationale et souligne que la France a pu servir périodiquement d’Autre dans la construction de l’identité nationale américaine. Ensuite il rappelle le contexte non seulement des relations politiques mais aussi des relations culturelles franco-américaines au moment de la guerre en Irak par l’analyse d’un matériau nouveau comme les prestations des chansonniers et les discours sur l’Internet. Puis il s’appuie sur les sondages d’opinion, les images et les vidéos de l’Internet pour montrer que la rumeur comme quoi John Kerry était français a contribué à affirmer très fortement l’identité de ses opposants et leur attachement à l’image de marque de George Bush. Enfin, il établit que cette rumeur est une preuve de plus de la lente dégradation post-moderne de la vie publique américaine où les rumeurs et le marketing politique ont remplacé l’analyse politique.

Texte intégral

1In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, a chapter is devoted to the Athenians’ debate about whether to invade and kill all the Mytilenean males and enslave their women and children as punishment for their political betrayal. Following his fellow Athenian and fiery orator Cleon who urges war, flatters the multitude, and then provokes them by using a with us/against us false dilemma, Thucydides has a citizen named Diodotus speak in attempted refutation:

« Diodotus: "The good citizen, instead of trying to terrify the opposition, ought to prove his case in fair argument;
[...] So a state of affairs has been reached where a good proposal honestly put forward is just as suspect as something thoroughly bad, and the result is that just as the speaker who advocates some monstrous measure has to win over the people by deceiving them, so also a man with good advice to give has to tell lies if he expects to be believed." » (From Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War).

2What might this ancient passage from Thucydides mean to us, across various cultures and political traditions today? It has been commonplace in recent years to hear politicians and academics speak of the « end of history » and « freedom on the march ». Freedom of the press and democratic forms of government have seen an explosion since 1989. But the kind of citizenship, types of political communication and news that have characterized these mass democracies is less publicized in mainstream news and political discourse. In fact, communication and democracy theorists have been less sanguine about these developments (Jamieson 1988; Phillips 2001).

3Recently, in an article called « The Rumor Bomb: American Mediated Politics as Pure War », I argued that a convergence of factors has produced an ecology of political communication and democratic citizenship that few political theorists of communication and democracy identify as a boon to democratic public life. A highly mediated public life characterized by mediated political debate and deliberation that is in fact anti-deliberative and avoiding reasoned debate at all costs predominates in the U. S. and is spreading elsewhere in conjunction with the commercialization and concentration of a global media system (Thussu 1998; Swanson 2004). This convergence of factors includes the following: the news media’s valuing of tabloidization and infotainment and audiences’ consumption of it, the news business’s practice of speed, due to market competition; influence of the internet (especially blogs); the breakdown of traditional news gatekeeping; the fragmentation of political mediated political discourse into soundbites on the news, and the tailoring of political messages to these constraints of the news format; and the 20th century drive for technocratization of mass democracies (transforming the term democracy itself into an oxymoronic performative contradiction) accompanied by the infiltration of political communication by public relations, itself modeled on the strategies and successes of war-time propaganda. Regardless of the veracity of claims, belief persists. The relationship between tenuous claims, their circulation, and the appearance and persistence of belief points to a common strategy in contemporary American political practice – the rumor bomb.

4The post-9/11 American mediated political culture has been marked by a series of rumor episodes, including Iraq-Al Qaeda ties, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and covert transportations of those weapons to Syria. The campaign leading to the 2004 presidential election was also rife with rumor bombs. Looking back on the campaign on election day, Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz noted: « Some of these episodes were harmless distractions (unless, like former AP reporter Polier, you were hounded by journalists over a false Internet rumor that made its way into the newspapers). But in other cases, the campaign was hijacked by sidebar stories that the media pumped up or twisted out of shape » (Kurtz 2004). In a scandalous CBS report that turned out to be based on forged documents, the Bush family was said to have influenced a makeover of the President’s Air National Guard service, including an instance where he allegedly failed to show up for a physical exam. But Kerry was largely on the receiving end of the rumor bombs. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth disputed the truthfulness of the event for which Kerry received military decorations in Vietnam, drawing widespread news attention until after three weeks of ads and several months of e-rumors in circulation it was reported that one of the Swift Boat accusers Al French had lied about being an eyewitness, and another accuser’s own navy record disputed his own recollection of the events (;​rumors/​k/​kerry-swiftboats.htm). In addition, in February 2004 the on-line Drudge Report claimed Kerry had had an affair with an intern, which the intern and Kerry then denied. But it was back in the spring of 2003 that one of the most durably vexing rumors of the campaign was launched against Kerry: He was said to be French-looking.

5Unlike some of the other rumors, this one was difficult to avoid, deny, or refute. And unlike some of the other rumors such as the Swift Boat Veterans claims or the Kerry-intern-affair rumor, the « Kerry is French » rumor was not limited to a short time frame but appeared off and on from April 2003 through the election. The claim may at first glance seem preposterous, yet it is not also clear what exactly the statement means. That was part of its circulatory success. It is this rumor episode, John Kerry is French, that I wish to analyze in this paper. To understand why it would be politically effective to call John Kerry « French » I will need to revisit the turbulent Franco-American relations around the invasion of Iraq in the winter of 2003, which becomes a context for some important coverage of the 2004 American presidential election, and that, in many ways, reflects the situation Thucydides described was threatening his implied norm for a healthy Athenian democracy. Reviewing theories about the construction of national identity, I note that France has sporadically served as an important « other » for the construction of American national identity and that this nationalist rhetoric was deployed as an effective distraction from the French and international arguments against an American invasion of Iraq. To fully appreciate this strategy by the Bush administration and partly understand its effects in the media agenda and public opinion, I re-construct the U. S. media portrayals/constructions of the pertinent war context through a preliminary content, discourse and rhetorical analysis of news transcripts, comedy shows, and samples from internet speech. I then analyze public opinion polls, internet video and images, and news transcripts to argue that the circulating rumor that John Kerry was French figured prominently in the identity of his opponents and was a successful political tactic (at least on the first level of infiltrating the media agenda, and on the second level of branding Kerry in some internet and other political commentary). Thus, the following study documents the rhetorical construction of national identities via important news frames and circulation (Americanness and Frenchness) which then becomes the cultural context for employing rumor as a political weapon: the rumor John Kerry is French. I view the Kerry rumor as evidence of ongoing trends in anti-deliberative American spectacular democracy (Harsin 2006), avoiding policy debate while endeavoring to construct public opinion and manage political belief. In addition, the study shows how rumors facilitate political branding as products of astute, if ruthless, readings and manipulations of the intermedia agenda-setting opportunities and changing old news media values toward tabloidization. Finally, the thick description of this rumor’s circulation on major cable and mainstream news channels, newspapers and internet sites shows how a rumor may create an intermedia discourse about a topic such as the war in Iraq or the suitability of a candidate for president, leaving only the most critically educated citizens to negotiate a labyrinthine media culture for alternative perspectives.

“F” The french: on the construction of l’ americanicité

  • 1 A lexisnexis search of major U. S. newspapers turns up 60 articles about her bill from mid-March to (...)

6To understand the French Kerry rumor as a political strategy, one must go back to the 2003 deliberations over the U. S. proposal to Invade Iraq. In the second week of March 2003, over two months since Germany and France had announced they would oppose a U. S.-led invasion of Iraq in the U. N., after images of Americans with « Invade France » posters at pro-war rallies (and their parodies in newspaper cartoons: see fig. 1 appendix) and others pouring French wine into gutters, two Congressional Representatives, apparently outraged at France’s opposition to a U. S. invasion of Iraq, moved to change the name of French fries to Freedom fries in the House cafeteria. On a similar note, Florida congresswoman Ginny Brown-Waite sponsored House Resolution 1265: the American Hero Act of 2003. The resolution called for the removal of all American servicemen’s remains from cemeteries in France and their relocation to the United States. Explaining her reasoning for the bill, Brown-Waite said, « France has consistently turned its back on the United States... They forget, if it weren’t for us they would be speaking German today » (Reid 2003). The bill never went anywhere, but the symbolic gesture was noticed by journalists around the world.1 Brown-Waite was re-elected with 64 % of the vote in 2004. However, it is not clear to what degree these media representations and public speech reflect widespread feeling or construct it. An interview with French President Jacques Chirac sheds more light on the role the media played in constructing a Franco-American rivalry, American anti-French public opinion, and in destroying a more careful consideration of the arguments for and against going to war in Iraq.

7In this seemingly rabidly anti-French media culture, Chirac went on the popular CBS TV news magazine 60 Minutes on March 16, 2003 supposedly to explain his case to the American people. Journalist Christine Amanpour, instead of asking Chirac careful questions about his argument against an invasion, tried to appeal to his shame for not boarding the war bandwagon. « Mr. President », said Amanpour, « you know that since you have taken the position you have there has been a massive backlash in the United States at almost every level of society ». Amanpour failed to explain what the « position » was to which she was referring, as if it were known to viewers beyond the simple knowledge that Chirac opposed an invasion of Iraq. Furthermore, as we shall see, the public opinion figures do not support Amanpour’s ethically suspect hyperbole that « there has been a massive backlash in the United States at almost every level of society. » Amanpour continued: « From the leader of the House of Representatives, who is talking about initiating sanctions against France in some form or another, to restaurants in the Congress which have renamed their "frites". Their French fries are now being called "freedom fries". » Then came the strangely unprofessional emotional appeal: « People feel... they are asking, what happened to our friendship? Does France remember who liberated them? Why is France betraying us? » She then linked Chirac to Saddam Hussein, posing a question in the rhetorically loaded form, « in America many people think it’s just because you are a friend, a pal of Saddam Hussein. That you have had long contacts with him, that you helped him build a nuclear reactor there » (​stories/​2003/​03/​16/​60minutes/​main544161.shtml). At the time, 76 % of Americans believed Hussein had strong ties to Al Qaeda and was involved in the 9/11 attacks (Morton 2003).

  • 2 Interestingly, Powell originally alluded to France and Germany as “some of our friends”, but the co (...)

8In the hundreds of mainstream TV and cable news transcripts and newspaper articles I’ve analyzed from this period in February and March 2003 not once do I find evidence that journalists tried to inform Americans about Chirac’s argument against a U. S. invasion of Iraq, which was centered around the following claims: 1) There was no evidence of an imminent threat; 2) Bringing democracy to Iraq would be a long, possibly very bloody process that could last years; and 3) Invading Iraq would incite more anger by Muslims around the world, who would see it as illegitimate use of force without U. N. sanction (​govemment/​france/​mfa/​france-mfa-chirac-021603.htm; Starobin 2003). It would be hard to deny today that Chirac was right on all counts.. But argument is of little consequence in the postmodern American public sphere, which is a shifting of surface images and of affective attachments on the part of the public. This complete neglect of public argument in favor of a frame of scandal and betrayal of an international magnitude was apparently seen as more lucrative to the American news media. It was a soap opera where after years of marriage, France, that perfidious lecher, was committing adultery against dame United States. Interestingly, this is precisely the metaphor Secretary of State Colin Powell used when allegedly trying to mend relations with France in the media: The U. S. and France, he said, had been in marriage counseling for over 200 years ( « Soft Power, hard Power »:

  • 3 The analysis of the French-American culture war, at its height from February through April 2003, is (...)

9The furor that was stirred up against the French in the American public culture in February and March continued on into the summer. In July, Washington politico Dick Morris responded in the New York Post to a comment made by the American ambassador to France, Howard Leach. Leach had said the pre-war friction between the U. S. and France was over « in the past and now part of history. » Morris responded by stoking the fire of anti-French sentiment even more: « When an ambassador is so out of synch with the people he’s supposed to represent, maybe it’s time for him to come home. Leach needs to familiarize himself with the depth and intensity of anti-French feeling in the United States » ( Almost no one in the mainstream news media (including the comedy and talk show forms) seemed to notice or want to publicize that Chirac had voiced a concern that at the time was completely in sync with majority American opinion. Public opinion polls showed that 60 % of Americans wanted what Chirac wanted: to let inspections continue (that number fell to 50 % within one week in the middle of the most intense French-bashing, March 6-13, 2003;​stories/​2003/​02/​13/​opinion/​polls/​main540574.shtml; Lynch 2003).3

10When one thinks of public opinion expression beyond its narrow manifestation in polls but as the re-presentation of public opinion in the widespread media attention to France as a traitor for opposing war, one sees that it started to look unpopular – in a word, French – to be against invading Iraq. Bush and the news media said that Americans felt betrayed by France, and many Americans seemed to follow the scripted role for them, perhaps in a bandwagon effect. The weekend after the House voted for freedom fries and the news dutifully followed the story, the number of Americans wanting to give U. N. inspectors more time dropped from 60 percent to 52 percent (Lynch 2003). And the number who believed the « crisis » required military action climbed from 45 percent to 50 percent (ibid.). But again, by looking at the news and popular cultural depiction of the situation, one would never guess that half of the American public was still against military action ( With the red herring that France was cowardly and traitorous surging through multiple forms of popular American media, the issue of whether going to war was in fact justified became obscured. It was obscured on TV network and cable news, late night comedy shows, and internet sites, and in the press (see Figures 1, 2, 5, and 6 in Appendix).

11In addition to TV and newspaper journalism, speech by conservative pundits, talk show hosts, and comedians was indispensable to the creation of this climate of popular feeling and belief. The popular conservative pundits, such as radio talk show star Rush Limbaugh, called for a boycott of French products. Hugely popular Fox News talk host Bill O’Reilly called for a boycott of everything French until Chirac made a formal apology to the American people. Clear Channel, the Communications conglomerate that owns huge numbers of radio stations and controls the ticketing of many live music performances, banned the Dixie Chicks, a pop-country act that had caused a flap when it was reported that they had announced to an audience in the U. K. that they were ashamed of their president. Furthermore, Clear Channel’s radio hosts openly promoted « I-Hate-France » web sites (Burns 2003). And the late night comedy talk shows seemed to make francophobia the highest form of American comedy. « The last time the French asked for proof it came marching into Paris under a German flag », David Letterman laughed, about Chirac’s demand for proof of Weapons of Mass Destruction. « You know why the French don’t want to bomb Saddam Hussein? Because he hates America, he loves mistresses, and wears a beret. He is French, people! » cried Conan O’Brien. And HBO’s particularly acidic Dennis Miller: « What do you expect from a culture and a nation that exerted more of its national will fighting against Disney World and Big Macs than against the Nazis? » (​cowards/​french.htm). National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg revived a slur from an eight-year-old Simpson’s episode where the character groundskeeper Willie fills in for the French teacher, addressing the class, « Bonjour, ye cheese-eatin’ surrender monkeys! »

12Meanwhile new media made its contribution to the French-bashing. Conservative websites like, and spread the word of a supposedly united American indignation at the French traitors and cowards. There were even email addresses which are still available, if any listeners here today are looking for a new one: Predictably, on these websites one rarely finds rational critical debate, or even a rhetorical argumentation that incorporates logos and pathos appeals. They are rhetorically constructed for believers and those who may be emotionally and intellectually susceptible to accusations of French treason. They are part of a hyper-linked network society and yet closed world of those who already believe in their brand of politics, leaders, and news organizations. Democratic debate is quaint and naive to them. They do occasionally support assertions, but only with pathos appeals to shame. As with the rest of the news media, they do not ask why Chirac and others oppose the war. They simply cite the 2,500 U. S. soldiers who died on the Normandy beaches trying to liberate France, thus begging the question of the Iraq war being justified (

13A May Fox News opinion survey found that half of Americans favored a boycott of French products. Yet in this struggle for American public opinion, there is evidence of a postmodern or poststructural bandwagon effect that took place. Bush and the news media said that Americans felt betrayed by France, and many Americans seemed to follow the scripted role for them. It was a classic example of Baudrillard’s postmodern dictum « the map precedes the territory. » The weekend after the House voted for freedom fries and the news dutifully followed the story, the number of Americans wanting to give U. N. inspectors more time dropped from 60 percent to 52 percent. And the number who believed the « crisis » required military action climbed from 45 percent to 50 percent. But again, by looking at the news and popular cultural depiction of the situation, one would never guess that half of the American public was still against military action (

Why « F » The French and not the Germans? scapegoats, redherrings, and national paranoia

14As others have asked, « Why France? » Why does U. N. opposition and strong opposition by Germany and Russia get condensed into the figure of France? For one thing, as several histories have suggested, the national identities of France and the United States have long depended on partly mythical binary oppositions between the two nations. France has sporadically played the part of a necessary other against which the United States produces its own national identity.

15Many studies of identity, national identity included, suggest that it is constructed via traditional Saussurean linguistic difference. Binary oppositions are vital to the construction of meaning and thus identity. According to Derrida (1978), one pole of the opposition is always privileged or valued over the other. While identity needs an other to construct its own illusory presence, that other is a supplement that is historically changing. For France and the U. S., each has served sporadically as an important opposition for constructing national identity (Woodward 1997; De Cillia, Reisigl and Wodak 1999; Bhabha 1992). National identities are « dynamic, fragile, "vulnerable" and often incoherent. » For this reason, American identity can for some people, in some contexts, be based on an alliance with France against Britain in the American Revolution, and for others based on stark differences where France is figured as totalitarian compared to U. S. democracy and its federalist division of power. The shifting signification of national identity is perhaps mainly produced by media circulation of particular significations.

  • 4 These categories are based on Vaisse (2003) and my own survey of content stereotypes across hundred (...)

16When France is used as a binary opposition for U. S. identity, it has historically looked like this, with a few more recent oppositions (this table will be projected on a screen)4:

France/French U. S./Americans
Strict, even policed, cultural practices Open cultural practices define the melting pot
Colonial past Rebelled against Colonialism
Lascivious, hyper-sexual Well-behaved, respectful, privately sexual
Extravagant, corrupted, Foppish Sparing or modest again
Formal, unrelaxed Relaxed
Cowardly brave
Effete/homosexual masculine
Delusions of grandeur, but Old Actually potent, New World Order
World passé
lecherous respectful
Anti-globalization, backward Pro-globalization, forward-looking
Communists/Socialists Capitalist democrats
Freedom-hating with too many rules, customs and laws Open and free
Foul-smelling clean
Arrogant, rude Modest, friendly
Anti-semitic Multi-cultural and accepting
Kerry: Arrogant, foppish, effete, elite Bush: cowboy/regular guy, democratic, strong
Effete was challenged by his war decorations, so that had to be attacked.
Speaks French Speaks Spanish

17These oppositions are perfectly portrayed in the following Saturday Night Live parody of a French tourism ad, which aired less than a year before the Bush/Chirac fallout.

18France: rolling countrysides, sprawling vineyards, quaint cafes. France: home to the world’s greatest painters, chefs, and anti-semites. The French: cowardly, yet opinionated; arrogant, yet foul-smelling; anti-Israel, anti-American, and, of course, as always, Jew-hating. Paris: the city of whores, dog feces on every comer, and effete men yelling anti-Semitic remarks at children. The real creme de la creme of world culture. With all that’s going on in the world, isn’t it about time we got back to hating the French? (​01/​01rfrance.phtml)

19All of these characteristics form the traditional cliches of the American discourse of Francophobia. Furthermore, this attempted parody of a French tourism ad is a window into supposed values that were circulating in contemporary U. S. culture. How do we know that? We know that most theories of social humor suggest that it is rhetorical: it works off the knowledge, values, and conventions of an audience (Davis 1996). Here, if it is to be funny for an inside group of better educated liberals, the idea is that it is funny because it is looking down at the stupidity of widespread American opinion about France. These opinions that contribute to the binary oppositions integral to American national identity have already been well-documented (Vaisse 2003).

  • 5 Of Schreber’s paranoia, Freud wrote, “It appears that the person to whom the delusion ascribes so m (...)

20Some of these same constructed French characteristics were successfully attached to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2003, lasting up until Election Day in 2004. To understand how those attachments and affective transfers were executed it is important to understand the cultural context which I have begun to describe through the example of the Saturday Night Live video, late night comedy, internet sites, and TV and print news. Yet, in wondering « why the French », I would suggest two fairly different possibilities. The first is that given the long history of French bashing in the United States around a system of political slurs, the Bush administration made strategic use of the French bashing to scapegoat, deflect its own diplomatic inadequacies, and thus re-unify or purify the ailing American nation. Second, one may view a non-rational kind of response to the U. S. diplomatic failure in the U. N., a kind of national paranoia that seems to be demonstrated here and which is encouraged by a political culture where one is not held responsible for making arguments that make rational claims and give several reasons for doing something (Jamieson, 1988). When one doesn’t get one’s way, the frustration seems to get channeled into scapegoats, which then spiral into a full-blown paranoia about being persecuted, conspired against and so on. The rhetoric of the Bush administration, circulated by the news media and popular culture, bears uncanny resemblance to the paranoia of Freud’s Judge Schreber.5 But this delusory condition was invited by the Bush Administration’s political situation.

  • 6 On the diplomatic failures with Turkey, for example, see (...)

21That situation was marked by the Bush administration’s diplomatic failures at the U. N. and with Turkey, among others6. The Bush administration presented these events in a paranoid frame, which media willingly took up as a good drama. France became the scapegoat for this damaged U. S. mind. And strategically, France became a useful tool to discredit the war opposition (some half of the U. S. population!) by branding it French, Un-American (Vaisse 2003). Similarly, John Kerry’s loose « connections » to France became a perfect receptacle for Bush administration foreign and domestic policy failures. Many believed Bush lied about WMD and Al Qaeda/Iraq links. But no matter, since this conspiratorial reaction could be reversed or redirected at the persecutor, the Frenchman John Kerry. Just as France stood in for Germany and Russia, and others in the world. Kerry would stand in for all the anti-American Americans who protested the war. The play of images and attachments was ripe: after all, though Kerry was a decorated veteran he was also an outspoken protestor of the Vietnam war. But now to protest the war was French, i.e. a traitor. Thus, the Kerry is French rumor bomb had several aims: 1) it would avoid rational critical debate about Iraq, reasons for going to war, errors in planning and executing the campaign in Iraq by redirecting emotional attention to the discourse of French cowardice and betrayal at the outset of the war, which re-framed support of the war as a matter of patriotism; 2) by linking Kerry to France and the discourse of French military ineptitude and cowardice, it sought to harm John Kerry’s ostensible advantage over George Bush in terms of the former’s military heroism; 3) related to the attempt to undermine Kerry’s heroic military ethos, it sought to undermine simultaneously Kerry’s ability to be a Commander in Chief who could make decisions in the national interest, which it was said would take a back seat to what was good for Europe and France, which circled back to French military and economic ineptitude; 4) and finally, it sought to undermine Kerry’s masculinity roferred by war heroism by drawing on the stereotype that French men were effete, which was to say, more or less homosexual. The news media (old and new) happily enabled the circulation of these rhetorical ploys.

The origins and circulation of the french Kerry Rumor

22It was in this highly constructed but suddenly rabidly francophobic cultural climate that the Bush administration decided to launch the rumor/slur that John Kerry was/is French. It appears to have begun in the same way that other forms of increasingly strategic rumors begin: as a leak from an anonymous source. In the midst of this anti-French frenzy, shrewd Bush strategists looked toward the fast approaching re-election campaign and saw an opportunity to discredit the most likely opponent.

23On April 22, 2003, the New York Times reported that an anonymous source in the Bush administration had observed that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had a distinctive look; in fact, he said, « he looks French. » Soon the internet was abuzz with talk about « the French-looking » John Kerry. Other conservatives complicated the strategically ambiguous claim, giving it a number of twists. One that stuck most was perhaps that of Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto who just two days after the leak, described Kerry as the « haughty, French-looking, Massachusetts Democrat. » He repeated this mantra regularly on the Wall Street Journal’s online opinion page. Today if one searches the on-line WSJ Opinion Journal archives, one finds a remarkable 187 editorials where the phrase was repeated. What is fascinating perhaps from the perspective of circulation and agenda-setting is that strategic phrases that mean nothing precisely but have great affective power begin with conservative sources in the Bush administration, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times, but then they are actually taken up by more legitimate news organizations and offered to the rumor mill. Two months after the rumor’s launch, and writing about what was to come in the following months in the campaign, Newsweek magazine’s editor Eleanor Clift demonstrated uncanny prescience. « Remember the anonymous Bush strategist quoted some months ago suggesting Sen. John Kerry looks French », Clift recalled. « There will be two GOP campaigns: the flagwaving one on the surface that Bush is involved with, and then the sub-rosa campaign waged by surrogates that will be less gentlemanly » (June 20, 2003).

Study of U. S. news media on the French Kerry Rumor

24I have performed an intensive search of hundreds of American daily newspapers, magazines, TV news scripts, wire releases, late night comedy routines, and internet sites and discussion on LexisNexis and Google to analyze the pervasive inter-media discourse that John Kerry is French. I have classified the types of French connections that were alleged and which drew affective energy from the already existing powerfully anti-French discourse in the United States. The classifications and the percentage of stories for each are presented in the following table. First, there were 80 stories in 2003 that dealt with the rumor that John Kerry was French. It appears that much of the talk about Kerry’s alleged Frenchness began on the internet and then was later taken up by the mainstream traditional news organizations. Coverage was also helped by major reiterations from the Bush administration their surrogates in Congress and on the radio. While the anti-French rhetoric did not die down much before 2004, characterizations of Kerry as French did seem to subside a bit until January, and then picked back up. I have classified the TV and print news, wire, magazine, internet and late night comedy data into five classes of « French connections » which served as dubious forms of evidence to discredit Kerry [See Appendix 2, figures 1-3]: 1. Speaks French; 2. Relatives or French family; 3. French public opinion – France loves Kerry!; 4. Looks French, or is « French-looking », often qualified by « haughty » or « socialist »; and 5. A miscellaneous class of assertions such as, « seems French », « has French ideas » (occasionally supported through an analogy of France’s tax system with that which Kerry allegedly proposed), « seems too French », « acts French », « would say "bonjour" ». Some texts contained all five classes of « connections. »

Speaks French

25Roughly 15 % of the texts I examined, discussed Kerry’s Frenchness in terms of his ability to speak fluent French, or stressing that he and his wife spoke French. When Fox News show host John Gibson asked his guest if Republicans would be able to effectively make John Kerry French, his guest responded, « They can if they want. » Why, Gibson asked. « Because Kerry speaks French. »

26Other times, the strategy seemed to be to follow tabloid genres that follow celebrities into their romantic lives. It was reported that Kerry whispered French into the ear of his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry on their first date. Still other times, it was enough to simply roll a tape of Kerry speaking French. The French kiss of death.

27Interestingly, it did not seem to matter that George W. Bush spoke Spanish to Cuban and Mexican-American audiences. Or, rather, it mattered in the way it could slide into an already existing American binary identity construction against France. Haughty France and its language was transferred to Kerry and democratic populist (i.e. American) Spanish was transferred to Bush. The contradiction that many Republicans have at times supported English-only legislation and defined themselves against an influx of their southern neighbors didn’t matter. French was an elitist, effete, East-Coast second language. Mexican Spanish was the language of the new American proletariat. It magically trumped Bush’s own elitist background and fit nicely with his appeals to ordinariness, to being a common man, indexed by his grammatical ineptitude and malapropisms (nucular, misunderestimating, strategery, presidenting). To attend to grammar was elitist, liberal, effete, French. As with the entire French connection rumor, a claim to masculinity underpinned it. Real men are men of action, not words. The president is a man of his word, not words.

Family Connections

28Another popular device in the Frenchification of John Kerry was the rumor that he was French by blood or nationality. These suggestions were often absurd, since they were ambiguous about Kerry’s birthplace, even though by U. S. law, one can not run for President of the United States unless one is born there. Nevertheless, American networks would send correspondents on expensive trips to Bretagne to report from St. Briauc, where Kerry’s father once owned a home and where Kerry was reputed to have spent summers in his youth. The usual coverage would move from acknowledging the rumor of Kerry’s French connection against the on-site backdrop in Bretagne, then appear to provide evidence for the rumor, noting that Kerry spoke fluent French, lived there at times, and would end with interviews with French citizens who expressed their unbridled enthusiasm for his presidential bid. In one « Fox Special Report with Brit Hume », (2/24/2004) correspondent Greg Palkot reports from Saint Briauc, France: « John Kerry country. Huh? That’s right. Kerry spent summers here as a boy, staying in the house of his grandfather ». Palkot explains that one of the grandfather’s daughters married a Frenchman, producing Kerry’s first cousin Brice Lalonde. Palkot ends by connecting St. Briac to WWII and American sacrifices for France: « Nazi troops occupied the town. American troops liberated the town. Three U. S. soldiers killed here are remembered », Palkot eulogizes. Not only is it never explained what this directly has to do with debates over policy or presidential leadership; it repeats the most common emotional appeal to support Bush’s indignation toward Chirac: the shame of betrayal after the debt of World War II. The frame for this story becomes one of melodramatic betrayal, in the context of the Iraq War.

29These stories accounted for a little over 10 % of the total French connections. I just demonstrated that this category also often overlapped with the other characteristics.

French public opinion

30The third major category of Kerry’s French connection consisted of announcing how popular Kerry was in France. Given the cultural climate the audience could make the inference without much help: popular with France means anti-American. Electing Kerry would be like committing treason. This sort of story is closely related to the French relatives/bloodline connection. Who would want to be popular with the French, who are being characterized as traitorous and cowardly? For example, Fox « news » host John Gibson of « The Big Story with John Gibson », said of a Le Figaro poll, October 15, 2004, « If the French could vote, 72 percent would vote for John Kerry. Why is it the French are so angry with the United States? » (Gibson, 2004). Here, Kerry is linked with the oft-repeated rumor that France opposes the U. S. because it hates or is angry with the U. S. for inscrutable reasons. In fact, Chirac told Amanpour in March 2003 that he opposed the war out of concern for a good friend. A local TV station’s news script for March 17, 2004 read: « Drudge Report [a much frequented political news blog] cites French going wild for Kerry... Stay tuned to see one possible explanation for why President Bush is so misunderstood by the French, [commercial break] « John Kerry is as popular in France as cheese » ( These stories accounted for roughly 15 % of the texts I examined.

Looks French: i.e. Haughty or Socialist

31Another 16 % of the stories analyzed simply treated Kerry as visual-biological evidence for Frenchness or, alternately, they suggested he was French through the alleged French ideas he was said to have. This is a conveniently effective form of ambiguous rumor. When one says « Kerry looks French », what do they mean? Do they mean there is a kind of phenotype, suggesting one is in the presence of a racial theory? Do they mean he looks French figuratively? Do they mean he has a cultural disposition they perceive as essentially French? In this way the cultural and the racial-essential seemed to mutually reinforce one another in their ambiguity. The binary oppositions we’ve already visited suggest a mythical French identity, behavior and thoughts by default, as if it’s in the blood. But if one is not by blood French, maybe one has been corrupted by their culture? This was the original White House leak in the spring of 2003. Kerry, someone said, « looked French ». This was soon qualified, as mentioned earlier, by pundits such as James Tarantano, to John Kerry, the « haughty, french-looking Massachusetts senator », or by Tom Delay, referred to Kerry as the socialist French-looking senator from Massachussets. Republican Senator Gordon Smith (OR), told the LA Times (08/14/2004), « It’s not John Kerry’s fault that he looks French. But it is his fault that he wants us 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 in the future ». This one at least provided support for the claim, though the grounds beg further elaboration. What policies exactly are « socialist »? Clearly, this repeats the old binary clichés of the cowardly/appeasing French, the radical socialist/communist French, and possibly even effete French. These accounted for 16 % of the texts I analyzed. [See figures 3 and 4]


32This sprawling category accounted for 24 % of the texts analyzed. Sometimes they suggested the signifier « French » indexed the stereotype of French military ineptitude. Campaigning in Pennsylvania, Oct. 2, 2004, Bush told reporters that if elected, « Kerry would subject American troops to "a veto from countries like France" ». In the context of the last two years of heavy French bashing, the inference for many was that Kerry would weaken the country by making it militarily inept and deferential to France or Europe, soft on terrorism, supposedly like France. At the Republican national convention, Republican turncoat Zell Miller proclaimed, « Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending ». Other stories suggested that Kerry’s Frenchness was betrayed in some kind of effeteness, or even homosexuality. The mainstream news media steered clear of the homosexuality rumor, but the internet was full of it. See for example these still slides from an animated video circulating around the internet as « Kerry loves Edwards » or « Kerry and Edwards in Love ». [See Slides; Appendix I, figures 9 and 10] Indeed, this theme was consistent with portrayals of Kerry at the Republican National convention, where a video mockingly represented Kerry as a French poodle named Fifi Kerry who debated the president’s dog Barney. The appeal to homophobia was so obvious to some in the media, that The New York Times’ Frank Rich responded with a column (9/5/2004) that was entitled « How Kerry Became a Girlie Man ». Rich noted the French slur, which was, he said, « code for faggy ». As mentioned above, the clear anchoring of Frenchness in military ineptitude, cowardice, and homosexuality had the potential to undermine Kerry’s seeming masculine credibility, and military leadership/heroism. If George W. Bush was dogged by rumors of dodging military duty in the Air National Guard, at least he wasn’t gay (which, of course, Kerry sought to counter in his outing of vice-president Cheney’s daughter as a lesbian).

Alternative Voices on the Internet

33I complemented my LexisNexis searches by Google searches for Kerry’s French Connection. In general, those searches revealed that the French connection rumor circulated widely on the internet in all the forms I found in the mainstream news media [See Appendix 1, figures 1-9; Appendix 2, figure 5; On screen]. A search of « John Kerry » and French produced 1,790,000 hits. The set of terms « Kerry "French-looking" (anonymous White house figure) April 2003 » produced 24,200 hits. « Kerry and "French-looking Massachusetts Democrat" » produced only 605 hits, but 186 hits alone registered on the influential Wall Street Journal’s Opinion website. The terms « Kerry and "French Connection" » produced 15,900 hits, while « "John Kerry" and haughty and "French-looking" » produced 605 hits. But when one searched « John Kerry and Haughty » the result leapt up to 40,600. The phrase « Kerry is gay » produced a mere 216 hits. But « "John Kerry" and effete » produced 28,200. « Kerry loves Edwards » produced 363 hits, and « Kerry and Edwards in love » produced 522. Perhaps an indicator of how internet speech can connect to and generate speech in other forms and places, the terms « "John Kerry" and French and t-shirt and stickers » produced a significant 171,000 hits. What are the salient features of these sites?

34One finds an enormous number of sites with no or almost no opposing views, just politics as branding. These sites are often linked to the sites of general Francophobia built at around the 2003 Bush/Chirac Affair. On these same sites one can find stickers and t-shirts to buy as « political speech ». Such cyber networks form an ideological loop. Of course, an internet network can not guarantee effects of belief or behavior/action. But in itself, it raises concerns about the balkanization of experience and beliefs in the new media environment, precisely the concern Sunstein (1999) aired in his cyber alarm

The bush administration and political intertextuality

35Intertextuality refers to the way texts, in this case, TV news, late-night comedy, internet sites, magazines, newspapers, and political speeches link up to one another, each potentially informing and providing a context for experiencing the others. Within the institutional context of news media, entertainment, and partisan internet sites and discussion groups, there are discourses at work. Discourses organize statements and utterances around principles of exclusion. They provide a code for what is acceptable and what is not in terms of knowledge (Mills, 1997, 12). Discourses are « practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak » (Foucault, 1972, 49). And further, « a discursive structure can be detected because of the systematicity of the ideas, opinions, concepts, ways of thinking and behaving which are formed within a particular context, and because of the effects of those ways of thinking and behaving » (Mills, 1997, 17).

36John Kerry as a sign was a vessel tossed about in a sea of competing discourse from 2003 to 2004. In the context of the Iraq War and the War on Terrorism a discourse of American patriotism was rampant. Kerry’s opponents sought to position him within that discourse of American patriotism precisely by associating him with that which was excluded – the French. According to a widespread nationalist, pro-war, and Francophobic discourse in the winter and spring of 2003, the French were cowards, fair-weather friends, disloyal, undependable, arrogant/haughty, militarily inept, communist/socialist, and effete. These were used effectively by Kerry’s opponents whose rhetoric was taken up and presented on a news and entertainment (in the case of Leno, Letterman, Conan, etc.) network so as to offset a counter-discourse offered by the Kerry public relations effort. According to them, Kerry was smart, dignified, masculine and militarily heroic.

37At the Democratic National Convention, Kerry’s Vietnam experience was portrayed using verbal and visual symbols that recalled popular patriotic war products such as « Saving Private Ryan » and « Band of Brothers ». Thus, in his acceptance speech, Kerry narrated, « Our band of brothers doesn’t march together because of who we are as veterans, but because of what we learned as soldiers. We fought for this nation because we loved it and we came back with the deep belief that every day is extra. We may be a little older, we may be a little grayer, but we still know how to fight for our country » ( 2004dnc.htm). But Kerry was also in a rhetorical bind, in the sense that he wanted to capitalize on his war heroism to build his brand, yet that brand existed in uncomfortable company with images and words about his anti-war activism upon returning home. The latter part of Kerry’s identity, his history, did not easily fit into the simplistic branding narratives that contemporary political communications demand. He needed to appear more nuanced, having masculine heroic war qualities but also anti-war qualities. Astutely, his image managers played this tension against the context of accusations that Bush lied about Weapons of Mass Destruction. In his campaign film, Kerry is thus quoted as saying, he « felt the government had not been truthful with the American public », and so it was his civic duty to question that government’s war policy (Com 2004). Similarly, Kerry faced a bind on his initial support for the Iraq War, which he then came to oppose. He wished to avoid the flipflopper opponent’s brand by identifying with the American people: he had trusted the president not to go it alone and only as a last resort based on careful intelligence work (​news/​nation/​articles/​2004/​09/​22/​kerry_looks_to_clarify_stance_views_on_iraq?pg=full). Kerry’s opponents played the French card in order to try to symbolically reverse the Kerry camp discourse. He was not a heroic military man, said the French Connection discourse, because Kerry is French and the French are cowards and lying opportunists. The French coward rumor circulated well in its intertextuality with the rumor from the Swift Boat Veterans, who tried to claim Kerry had lied about his bravery in Vietnam. The aim there appears to be to fight accusations that Bush lied by making Kerry defend himself against similar accusations. It was an « I’m rubber, you’re glue » level of political discourse.

38How does this rumor and its circulation fit into contemporary American news consumption patterns? Americans have been increasingly losing faith in network news. Further, they are increasingly partisan in their preference for cable news (mainly CNN or Fox). CNN has lost in « believability » over the last two years, while Fox has increased. The three cable channels (Fox, CNN, and MSNBC) have been rated as believable as the major network news now. What sort of believability is the branding of cable news producing? As a recent report on the state of the American news media states, branding coincides with news consumption and political identity to produce a limited perspective on the contingencies of political reality:

39« How much might people learn from their news outlet of choice? Here cable viewers seem to fall somewhere in the middle of the pack. Survey research suggests that people using different news sources can have very different impressions of reality ». (​2005/​narrative_cable-tv_publicattitudes.asp?cat=7&media=5).

40The real challenge in speculating about the effects of this discourse lies in understanding networks of information consumption.

41Since I do not have access to data about millions of people’s consumption networks or geographies, I can not say with certainty that the French Kerry discourse produced anti-Kerry attitudes; in fact, it is impossible to prove that it combined with other anti-Kerry discourses (illegitimate decorations for heroism, a coward; East Coast liberal elitist; and flipflopper). What does seem clear is intention. Intention is a category of media and cultural analysis that became unfashionable in the 1980’s and 90’s amidst post-structural critiques of interpretation based on intentionalist hermeneutics, which sounded the death knell of the author, from Ricoeur to Foucault (Ricoeur 1992; Foucault 1984). Foucault notoriously claimed that authors are subject effects of discourse. He also went so far as to claim that the custom of assigning name to a text was a way of policing unruly subjects and knowledges, punishing the author’s responsible. But the anonymity of leaks and rumors hardly points to an unquestionably liberating function of such expressions.

42In the study of political style, intention remains an important inference. It was Kenneth Burke who especially drew our attention to the potential of rhetorical study to reveal motives. Studying the mediated sound bites, web texts, and discussion groups’ without attention to author is useful if not advisable. It tells us something about the qualities of communicated politics, whereby one may decide that such a style does not serve democratic goals, should they clearly define them. However, sometimes it may be important to try to trace styles of political communication back to their authors (if possible). Here primary authors (political public relations gurus) and secondary ones (the media in their mediation function) may be participating in communication practices that serve to dominate would-be democratic citizens. Indeed, this has been the project of various democratophobes since Edward Bernays published his influential Propaganda in 1928, in which he declared: « The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country ».

43People wage politics consciously because they intend to change or maintain something. As one of the oldest forms of pedagogy and criticism of political communication, rhetoric has always been interested in intention. There is evidence that a Republican public relations initiative was launched in this case of Kerry’s French Connection. All of the sources for claims that Kerry « looks French », « is French » and so on that were cited in the news media were Republicans. Indeed, the original rumor was launched by an anonymous Bush administration official who made it to a NY Times reporter all too willing to circulate it. In another example of the partisan sources and intentions of the rumor strategy, on August 12, 2004, the Bush campaign arranged a conference call with the Los Angeles Times in which Republican Senator from Oregon Gordon Smith commented, « It’s not John Kerry’s fault that he looks French ». He went on to say that Kerry advocated socialism. It appears to have made the most rounds on Fox news and conservative radio shows like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Howard Stern. But late night comedy shows also began using it as material and circulating it further. Internet blogs, right-wing and left-wing news sites and partisan commentaries also played their role in putting it on a media and public agenda. Of all the internet « hits » I explored for John Kerry and French, I found not one debating the rumor’s claim. The rumor was either repeated and circulated by mainstream news sites or it was cited in a context of ad hominem claims about the French and John Kerry.


44The findings of this study contribute to our knowledge about the contemporary American political culture and mediated citizenship. It reveals some of the relationships between intentional Bush administration media control tactics aimed at public consent via distraction. Specifically, it provides knowledge about the communication tactics used by the Bush administration in the last election to discredit John Kerry, as well as about the Kerry PR team’s responses and tactics of its own. Those tactics reveal a political culture where branding has taken over. The norm is a war of distractions produced by political actors and media enablers who pay careful attention to their embeddedness in an entertainment context (Band of Brothers; The Simpsons; Saturday Night Live; The O’Reilley Factor; Saving Private Ryan). The articles that circulate the rumor that Kerry was French are small compared to the total number of articles on and references (such as late night talk shows and comedy) to John Kerry in the media. But when viewed in conjunction with other major tactics and events in the campaign, one begins to see some of the recurring strategies of the Bush communication effort. Other rumors in the context included Iraq/Al Qaeda links, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Kerry’s cowardice in Vietnam and thus illegitimate medals. In conclusion this episode unfortunately corroborates some of the bleakest theories about the feudalized American public sphere and the superficial nature of American democracy in the current conjuncture, which is a process with deep roots in World War I propaganda tactics converted into peacetime war and then redirected back into politics. Political Communication and information consumption as citizenship in the U. S. is today best understood as branding in terms of marketing theory, and it is a trend that is spreading across Europe and globally (Swanson, 2004). If political deliberation has ever been about a process of defining terms, supporting claims, rebutting opponent’s arguments and so on, we are far from that ideal today. The news media did very little to interrupt such irrational, anti-deliberative strategies of political persuasion. On the contrary, they facilitated them by repeating them in a tabloid-way. Kerry’s family ties or linguistic ability have no clear connection with his suitability for the job of president, yet the news media happily circulated these red herrings and ad hominem. Instead of hearing about the problem of healthcare, or Iraq and both candidate’s positions on them, precious news time was squandered on tabloid-like associations that the news media had to know would be damning for Kerry in the context of the Franco-American fallout of one year before. This electronically mediated spectacle of democracy recalls Thucydides with whom I began. We witness a state of affairs where distraction, rumor and innuendo are the most powerful forms of political persuasion. In Thucydides’ ancient Athens, the solution proposed was to publicize the hyper-distorted state of political communication. Perhaps we should do the same.

45“So a state of affairs has been reached where a good proposal honestly put forward is just as suspect as something thoroughly bad, and the result is that just as the speaker who advocates some monstrous measure has to win over the people by deceiving them, so also a man with good advice to give has to tell lies if he expects to be believed.



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1 A lexisnexis search of major U. S. newspapers turns up 60 articles about her bill from mid-March to May 1, 2003. In Europe, the story attracted attention in France, Spain, Germany and Portugal. The wire services such as Agence France Presse, United Press International, and the Associated Press; extended its reach across every continent (lexisnexis search, December 12, 2005).

2 Interestingly, Powell originally alluded to France and Germany as “some of our friends”, but the comment in media circulation came to refer to France specifically (see his interview with Charlie Rose,; and

3 The analysis of the French-American culture war, at its height from February through April 2003, is a study in itself, the condensed form of which is presented here (Harsin forthcoming). I would note that this conflict between public opinion and claims of mediated war rhetoric (Amanpour’s “massive backlash in the United States at almost every level of society.”) suggests that the conflict was not so much between France and the U. S. but betweem anti-war Kerry supporters and pro-war Bush supporters. Characterizing the issue of war as France vs. the U. S., a question of patriotism, was an effective way of avoiding careful debate about the merits of the war plan, and of vilifying the anti-war group as, in effect, French-.i.e. traitors.

4 These categories are based on Vaisse (2003) and my own survey of content stereotypes across hundreds of mainstream American and newspapers, TV shows, and websites in 2003.

5 Of Schreber’s paranoia, Freud wrote, “It appears that the person to whom the delusion ascribes so much power and influence, in whose hands all the threads of conspiracy converge, is either, if he is definitely named, identical with some one who played an equally important part in the patient’s emotional life before his illness, or else is easily recognizable as a substitute for him. The intensity of the emotion is projected outwards in the shape of external power, while its quality is changed into the opposite. The person who is now hated and feared as a persecutor was at one time loved and honoured. The main purpose of the persecution constructed by the patient’s delusion is to serve as a justification for the change in his emotional attitude” (Freud 1996, 116).

6 On the diplomatic failures with Turkey, for example, see


(Ph. D. Northwestern University) est Assistant Professor en communication à l’American University of Paris. Ses recherches et son enseignement se concentrent sur la politique et les medias, en particulier aux États-Unis. Il finit actuellement un livre intitulé : The Rumor Bomb : American Mediated Politics as Pure War. Ses recherches sont à l’intersection de l’étude des medias et de la théorie politique, sociale et culturelle.

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