View Full Version : U.S. Boycott Hurts French Cheese Exporters

04-13-03, 01:05 PM
Apr 13, 1:52 PM EDT

U.S. Boycott Hurts French Cheese Exporters

Associated Press Writer

PARIS (AP) -- One way to gauge how Americans are thinking about France after the split over the war in Iraq is to ask a cheese exporter like Marc Refabert.

The Frenchman has been inundated by more than 2,000 e-mails from American customers, ranging in tone from apologetic to impolite, but all carrying the message put succinctly by a man from Illinois: "We no longer buy French products."

Many American gourmets seem to be putting politics over palates, and, although they haven't released any numbers, French suppliers say their bottom lines are being hurt by the French government's refusal to back military action.

"I wish we could just invite people to have some cheese and wine and relax, but that wouldn't appear to be the solution for now," said Refabert, co-founder of the Internet retailer www.fromages.com, which grossed $500,000 last year, mostly on sales to the United States.

An anti-France reaction that started with "freedom fries" has taken on sprawling dimensions: Some U.S. lawmakers are urging American companies to skip the Paris Air Show. A U.S.-based Web site took advertising space in The New York Times urging consumers not to fly Air France, eat Yoplait yogurt or buy a long list of other French goods.

While brie and Bordeaux are unlikely to become permanent casualties, there is little doubt these and other products have become popular targets as Americans turn up their noses at the French.

For Refabert, the influx of nasty e-mails has declined from a peak at the start of the war, but sales at his Tours-based business have not recovered. He's hopeful U.S. demand for French cheese will pick up around Easter, normally one of his busiest periods.

On the other side of the Atlantic, vendors of French goods hold little optimism for a change soon.

Murray's Cheese Shop in New York, known for its extensive French variety, is running a sale of almost exclusively French cheeses.

"People are buying less French cheese, there's no question about it. And I don't believe its subsiding," said Robert Kaufelt, the shop's owner. "It's going to mean better bargains for the customers who do want to buy it."

Kaufelt feels anti-French sentiment has entered a new phase. Initially - after France's prewar threat to use its U.N. veto to block Security Council support for military action - customers berated Kaufelt for carrying French cheeses.

"We don't get any comments or remarks anymore. We're in the unspoken phase - where they're just not buying it," he said.

The anti-French tide has some vendors scrambling for more pro-American suppliers - like the British.

Kaufelt was one of five American foodbuyers who traveled to Yorkshire in northern England in late March looking for British cheeses that could substitute for his French offerings.

Several British newspapers chronicled the visit, reveling in the idea that the delights from Wensleydale and Thirsk could someday replace those from Camembert and Roquefort.

At Wensleydale Dairy, sales director Phil Jones welcomed the new interest in its cheese: "We're cheesemakers and we try not to get too involved with politics. But if politics helps us, well, we'll take advantage of that."

French wine and cheese exporters say it's too soon for precise figures on recent sales to the United States, but few expect those numbers to be positive.

Even once statistics are tabulated, it will be difficult to measure the true impact of a boycott on French business, which is already suffering from economic gloom and a depreciated dollar that makes French products pricier for Americans.

What's not in question is the importance of the American market. The United States was the world's largest consumer of French wines and spirits last year, accounting for nearly a quarter - $1.8 billion - of total French exports.

"It definitely is a bit more challenging to sell French wine these days," said Jacques Thebault of SOPEXA, a branch of the French Agriculture Ministry that markets French food products in the United States. "We believe we're going to have a short-term impact on sales."

Retailers and chain stores in several parts of the United States have put off planned promotions of French wines and delayed new orders, Thebault said.

At the Syndicale des Negotiants de Beaune, which represents 70 producers of Burgundy and Beaujolais wines, they're taking a low profile.

"We're not looking to actively sell French wines in the United States," spokesman Denis Deveau said. "It wouldn't be the politically correct thing to do."