WASHINGTON — No one wants to bring back freedom fries, but the French are under attack again.
This time politicians from Kansas and Washington state are leading the charge. They're irked that they're losing thousands of jobs after the Air Force awarded a $35 billion contract to the parent company of French-based Airbus to replace an aging fleet of aerial tankers.
The contract has become the latest cause celebre on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers from the two states arguing that the Air Force erred by not giving the contract to Boeing, the local favorite and Airbus' rival.
Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback says it makes no sense to give a military contract to a country that hasn't always seen eye to eye with U.S. policy. That would be the war in Iraq, which resulted in French fries temporarily getting renamed in House of Representatives cafeterias.
"You don't want your national defense dependent on foreign governments," Brownback said.
Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts calls the French a bunch of socialists. "We're in the position now of subsidizing socialism," he charged.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Democrat Patty Murray of Washington state noted that if Boeing had won the contract, it would have created 44,000 jobs in the United States. By having the planes built in Toulouse, France, she said: "The U.S. government is leading those jobs to the guillotine."
The U.S. plan is tantamount to "outsourcing" its military work, Murray said. And she said American taxpayers would be financing "a European jobs program" that gave control of U.S. military technology to a foreign-owned company during a time of war.
The contract, which is the second-largest Pentagon program in history, was awarded to Northrop Grumman Corp., which teamed up with European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., the parent company of Airbus.
"I feel sorry to (hear) such comments," said Emmanuel Lenain, spokesman and press counselor for the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., adding that the competition was won by "a European company, not a French one." EADS is based in the Netherlands.
"For the bigger picture, keep in mind that there are 2,400 branches of French companies in the United States, employing about 450,000 people," he said. "Given the size of the investments in both directions, the total volume of French-American exchanges exceeds $1 billion a day."
Airbus' opponents are reflecting their constituents, who are hopping mad over Boeing's loss. Opponents of Airbus are swamping Senate offices with phone calls and e-mails, their anger heightened by the slowdown in the economy.
"I am appalled that we would do anything with the French," said Shirley Read, a Wichita, Kan., native who lives across the state border in Lees Summit, Mo. "It is a disgrace to this country that we would send our money overseas to have them build something that we could do better here in the Midwest. What are we coming to?"
The Kansas senators, longtime advocates of free trade, suddenly sound very protectionist. Brownback even says it might be time to force a "Buy America" provision on military contracts.
"It does make you angry, because it makes you question our trade agenda as well as our national security," Roberts said. He wondered what will happen if France objects to U.S. military policy: "They've been pretty independent, to say the least. I think we all remember those days."
Brownback said the issue deserved a full security analysis.
"What happens if the Europeans are not satisfied with what we're doing in the Middle East?" he asked. "And they say, 'Well, we're not going to give you flyover rights,' or if they refuse to sell spare parts for the tankers. We're going to fight it."
To be sure, everyone isn't complaining.
Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said the Air Force chose the European company after conducting "an extensive competition to identify the finest aircraft available."
Of course, Sessions represents Mobile, Ala., a city founded by French explorers. Airbus is promising to do its final assembly of the planes at a new plant in Mobile, bringing up to 5,000 jobs to the state.
"Not only is this the right decision for our military, but it is great news for Alabama," said Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama.
Despite all the complaints, opponents of Airbus acknowledge that it will be tough to stop the deal, and they're uncertain how to proceed.
"You better be a little careful in calling for a vote in the Senate or House, because you do have some members who are very much for this," Roberts said.
Brownback, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said it was conceivable that Congress could withhold funding for the project. And he said that was an option that he was examining.
"This makes me mad," he said. " . . . The Europeans have been beating on us, and they beat on us about what we do militarily. So they're going to build the planes to get the money out of it and then complain about what we use the planes for?"
Kansas Republican Rep. Todd Tiahrt said Congress needed to change the way military contracts were awarded, saying "the deck is stacked against American manufacturers" and has created an unfair playing field.
"We should have suspected it when the replacement for the presidential helicopter, Marine One, went to a foreign manufacturer," he said. "We have got to change this system. Otherwise we're not going to have any defense jobs in America."