Just before the Iraq war, one of France’s most impressive strategic analysts correctly predicted that the invading forces would find mass graves and other evidence of the terrible brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime. Can you imagine, he asked me, what will happen when this evidence comes out and French intellectuals demand to know why our government protected such a brutal dictatorship?
But that accounting has never taken place. Indeed, it says something about the nature of our current era that French President Jacques Chirac has managed to portray himself as an international hero while American President George W. Bush is widely seen as some sort of ravening beast.
Now France is entitled to base its policy purely on narrow and material national interests; but it cannot then pretend (successfully!) that it is nevertheless acting in the interests of high morality, justice and the benefit of the international community.
A government which has frequently pursued policies that go against the views and interests of most of Europe has been able to posture as Europe’s leader. The regime that has carried out dozens of military interventions in Africa without consulting any other country or institution has been able to pose as the champion of international legitimacy.
In domestic terms, it has passed virtually unnoticed that a conservative government has so effectively managed to disarm the Left by its posturing abroad. Although Paris’s policy often appeals to the Left it is really rather reactionary, oriented toward the preservation of the status quo for dictatorial rulers and the maximizing of financial benefits for itself. Indeed, the concepts of “progressive” and “humane” have been redefined basically to mean anything opposed to the policy or interests of the US.
One might think that propping up and protecting many of the world’s most viciously repressive dictatorships would draw fire in a country with traditions like France’s. Yet the reinvention of reactionary rulers as revolutionary heroes has worked very well for the French government. It appeals to France’s growing Muslim minority too—but that was merely a side benefit, not the motivation for the policy.
French policy contradictions have been especially sharp in regard to Middle East issues. In diplomatic terms France to a large extent replaced the Soviet Union as the protector of radical regimes in Iran, Iraq and, at least until recently, Syria. When Yasser Arafat died, under the reverent protection of the French government, public opinion polls showed he was more popular in France than among Palestinians.
During a visit last week by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah, Chirac went beyond a legitimate celebration of the good bilateral relationship to praise the Saudis’ allegedly “ambitious” reform program and supposed record of fighting international terrorism. In other words, his government did not merely ignore Saudi Arabia’s sorry record on human rights and fighting terrorism, it actually praised Riyadh’s efforts.
Simultaneously, Chirac is subverting the West’s bargaining position in trying to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. He’s being softer than Britain and Germany, who are far closer to the US in wanting a tough stand to persuade Teheran to give up, or at least slow down its crash program.
An astute observer of French foreign policy remarked to me: “France is like Egypt.” He meant this in the sense of there being a strain of pragmatism behind the bombast of propagandistic statements and supposed ideological commitments.
The fact is that France’s relationship with the US, and Israel, has been improving over the last year. The French leadership has largely concluded that things have gone too far toward confrontation. Developments within the region itself—progress in Iraq, the renewal of hope for Israel-Palestinian diplomacy—have also played a role.
Another factor of lesser importance might be the internal situation in France. While urging others to be tolerant of Arab nationalism, Islamism and what amounts to terrorism, the government in Paris wants none of that close to home. Compare France’s tough policy of assimilation—most notably the banning of Muslim headscarves in public schools—with Britain’s multicultural softness. Those suspected of terrorist activity in France are treated very harshly indeed. Perhaps there is a greater appreciation of such threats.
But by far the biggest issue changing French policy has been developments in Syria and Lebanon, two countries to which Paris feels especially close. The assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, probably by Syrian agents, was something Chirac had to take seriously given his personal friendship with that politician. France cooperated with the US, helping to build pressure to obtain the Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon.
The interesting question coming up is what France will do if the UN concludes that the Syrian government was implicated in Hariri’s murder. Beyond that, with Chirac’s term in office moving toward its end, an even more important issue will be whether his successor follows a similar course in international, and especially Middle East, policy.
Republished by Permission
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center. His forthcoming book, “The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East,” will soon be published by John Wiley publishers.