The moment when a set of Le Creuset cast-iron pots potentially doubled in price to $800 this week may have marked the point at which President Donald Trump went a step too far in his protection of US companies.
On Monday, in retaliation for the digital service tax France passed this summer, the Trump administration proposed tariffs of 100 per cent on up to $2.4bn of French goods. But not just any French goods: cheese, Champagne, handbags, beauty products and cast-iron kitchenware like Le Creuset pots — the types of products that are the most deeply symbolic of French identity.
I remember receiving my first Le Creuset casserole as a housewarming gift. I felt I was graduating into the next phase of my urban elite life in New York, one in which I could now cook a proper coq au vin for a dinner party. It made me feel accomplished — like I was on the right trajectory in life. To a certain type of American, these are also the products that make it possible to get up in the morning and face the indignities of Mr Trump’s America. After all, what is roasted beetroot without Roquefort? What, frankly, is the point of any of it without Champagne?
And what is it all for? To save Mark Zuckerberg some pocket money? The French digital tax levies 3 per cent of the revenue of big technology companies operating in France: in other words Facebook and its fellows take the hit.
Mr Trump assured us this week that he’s “not in love” with Facebook, Google and Twitter. He is acting for his own, typically boorish, reasons: “If anyone is going to take advantage of the American companies”, he said at this week’s Nato summit, “it’s going to be us. It’s not going to be France.” But the president’s sudden and improbable alignment with Big Tech is also about maintaining a US edge in the bigger trade war with China, in which technology is central.
Meanwhile, Mr Trump appears to be indifferent to the potential domestic costs of these suggested tariffs. I mean, of course, “domestic” in the at-home-with-Melania sense. The first lady makes headlines for her style, both for its bizarreness (remember the infamous Zara jacket she wore to a migrant detention centre with “I REALLY DON’T CARE DO U?” emblazoned on the back) and the brands she wears — often French luxury labels.
Has the president thought about the potential consequences of the tariffs for his own wife, who seems to change Hermès Birkin bags the way other women change underwear, not to mention the hit to their household budget?
Where will this punitive tax leave the rest of us? With Velveeta slices and American-made fizz from Trump Winery. (Yes, for real, owned and operated by the president’s son, Eric.)
It’s widely agreed that there needs to be a better way to tax Big Tech revenues globally. In 2018, the five leading internet companies paid only €130m in total business taxes. But Mr Trump doesn’t have a better plan — nobody does yet. Even France pitched the tax as a stop-gap measure until new multilateral rules were passed through the OECD, and said it would reimburse companies the difference when that happened.
Yet, the collateral damage of this retaliatory positioning could be costly. The backlash against Big Tech is bound to intensify as dinner parties in foodie enclaves of America get a lot more expensive and Le Creuset-owners who like to keep a bottle of Roederer chilling in the fridge awaken to the nefarious effects of the industry. Before long, well, the situation becomes intolerable.
Mr Trump has made some conciliatory noises, conceding that it’s a minor dispute and that France and America will probably be able to work it out. Even Mr Macron says he is confident a solution can be found.
I certainly hope so. As every French person knows, a life spent eating processed cheese is not a life at all.