Insight on the News - World
Issue: 03/18/03

Cover story

What's Wrong With France?

By Kenneth R. Timmerman
"Going to war without France is like going deer hunting without an accordion. You just leave a lot of useless, noisy baggage behind."

-- Jed Babbin, former deputy undersecretary of defense, (1989-1992); Jan. 30, 2003, on MSNBC's Hardball With Chris Matthews.

When Charles Lord Cornwallis realized he had been beaten at Yorktown, Va., on Oct. 19, 1781, he ordered his second-in-command to deliver his sword to the Comte de Rochambeau, the French general who had supported Gen. George Washington in the crushing defeat of the British thanks to a powerful naval blockade by a French fleet. Responding with an elegant gesture, Rochambeau directed him to Washington, who in turn directed him to his own second-in-command, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln. It was the final battle of the American Revolution, and the French had been with us when it counted.

In their schoolbooks, American children learn how France came to the assistance of the United States when everything was at risk, just as French children learn how the United States returned the favor twice in the last century. As he stepped onto French soil at the head of the American Expeditionary Force in 1917, Gen. John Pershing famously declared, "Lafayette, we are here!" Again, in World War II, the United States repaid the debt of liberty and friendship with the blood of yet another generation.

And yet, since the end of World War II, the United States and France have suffered a disaffection -- a love-hate relationship -- like former sweethearts wondering years later why it didn't all work out. In 1966, when Gen. Charles de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO's unified military command and ordered the United States from bases in the Paris suburb of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly asked him if he also wanted the United States to disinter and take along the American dead who had fallen at Omaha Beach.

De Gaulle didn't want that, of course; nor do the French of today. Indeed, every year on Aug. 15 the French village of Le Plan de la Tour celebrates the landing of American troops at Ste. Maxime and St. Tropez with a parade of World War II jeeps and veterans dressed in U.S. uniforms of that era. Similar celebrations are held across France where important battles of the Liberation were fought.

But to read the invective broadcast on both sides of the Atlantic as the political rift between the United States and France has grown in recent weeks, one might never know that the two countries are bound by a shared heritage bought with blood.

Dominique Moisi, who heads the leading French think tank, the Institut Français des Relations Internationales (IFRI), tells Insight: "This is a rejection of war and a rejection of America. It's no longer a rational issue -- it's an emotional question. There's a feeling that war itself is the biggest evil." French President Jacques Chirac has been saying the same thing, while outraged Americans respond by accusing him of appeasement.

Moisi defends the United States' and Britain's determination to disarm Saddam Hussein by force, if necessary, but says he finds himself in a distinct minority among European opinion leaders. Moisi, showing the angst America's supporters in France are experiencing, says: "I share the conclusions of the Bush administration, but I am disappointed with the way the argument is made. The opposite is true of France. The argument is very well presented, but the conclusion is wrong."

Meanwhile, in the United States, the depth of anger with the French is breathtaking. Internet communities and politicians are awash with anti-French jokes that express a mixture of contempt, hurt, incomprehension and insult.

At a dinner party at the home of Indian consul Skand Ranjan Tayal in Houston recently, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) ripped into a French diplomat who was criticizing the U.S. position on Iraq. "It was obvious we were not going to agree," DeLay said, so he asked the Frenchman if he spoke German. "And he looked at me kind of funny and said, 'No, I don't speak German.' And I said, 'You're welcome,' turned around, and walked off."

In Beaufort, S.C., a restaurant owner took French fries off his menu and replaced them with "freedom fries." In West Palm Beach, Fla., bar owner Ken Wagner poured his entire cellar of vintage French wine into the street. Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson said he intended to block a subsidiary of the French conglomerate Vivendi Environmental from getting a $25 million government contract to build a sludge-treatment plant.

On Internet discussion boards, jokes go to the heart of French honor. "Why are French streets lined with trees?" goes one. Answer: "So the Germans can march in the shade." Question: "How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris?" Answer: "No one knows, it's never been done."

Former CIA director R. James Woolsey argues that such jokes "should not only be beneath us but are quite false." He points to the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914, when Gen. Joseph-Simon Gallieni mobilized Parisian taxi drivers to rush reinforcements to the front to save the city, a moment in French history "as famous in France as Washington's crossing of the Delaware is to Americans."

Similar jokes about Germany fail to acknowledge courageous opposition to Adolf Hitler during the Third Reich, when diplomats such as Ulrich von Hassell plotted against the dictator and paid for it with their lives. "We diminish ourselves and our arguments by denying the noble side of these nations' histories and slandering their national honor," Woolsey says. "Yes, the Germans had the Nazis and the French the Reign of Terror and Vichy. And we had slavery." He suggests calling the war to liberate Iraq, "Operation Lafayette.''

The most famous anecdote French schoolchildren are taught about the First Battle of the Marne is slightly more nuanced than Woolsey's account. When several hundred taxis had assembled at the Esplanade des Invalides in Paris, one of the drivers turned to the French army officer in command and asked, "What about the fare?" After a bit of haggling it was agreed to pay the drivers 27 percent of the meter reading for the harrowing 60-mile round-trip to Nanteuil-le-Haudouin. But thanks to their heroism, the German advance on Paris was stopped.

Woolsey is right when it comes to honor. As a journalist who has spent 18 years in France, this reporter deployed overseas with French marines and spent time as a hostage in a Beirut cellar with a French foreign legionnaire, where we ate dirt, sweated fear and prayed together. It is hard to forget having dined with the commanding officer of the French Foreign Legion, who voiced admiration for the United States and criticized the lack of resolve of his political masters.

French presidents repeatedly have humiliated the French army. In 1991, then-president François Mitterrand belatedly dispatched the French aircraft carrier Clemenceau to the Persian Gulf to join the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq, but not before his minister of defense, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, gave orders to disembark the entire complement of combat aircraft. When the Clemenceau steamed out of its home port of Toulon, it was photographed with its flight deck jam packed with trucks.

This is the type of thing that gives French officers "les boules," an expression that is accompanied by a hand to the throat to indicate that they are choking with rage.

[Related material:
"A Brief Military History of France."]

French grandeur is indeed at stake in the current standoff with the United States and Britain over Iraq. "This obsessive finger-pointing across the Atlantic is the latest hint that a kind of new Cold War is brewing with an adversary that Americans never would have expected," writes Joshua Muravchik, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. "The French act as if they feel they were the real losers when the old Cold War ended. America's emergence as the sole superpower, no longer counterbalanced by the Soviet Union, seems to have left them with an accentuated sense of inferiority. To assuage it, they are not only blaming and denigrating America but also challenging it on one diplomatic front after another."

Behind the scenes, say insiders, France has an economic stake in maintaining Saddam Hussein in power and cloaks this in meaningless babble about preventing Iraqi civilian casualties, as if Saddam had not murdered and starved a half-million Iraqi civilians during the last decade alone.

According to Richard Perle, who heads the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, the French national oil company TotalFinaElf recently negotiated with Baghdad a contract to expand Iraq's huge southern oil fields, worth an estimated $40 billion to $50 billion. This contract only can come to fruition if Saddam remains in power. "What's distinctive about the Total contract is that it's not favorable to Iraq, it's favorable to Total," Perle said during a recent address in New York City. "One can suspect that there's some arbitrage there, that in between the real value of that contract and the cash value of that contract there's a certain amount of political support. It's entirely possible that Saddam negotiated that deal thinking that along with the revenues he could get something else." That something else, of course, would be French support in opposing the war.

Perle believes that the behavior of Chirac and his government raises doubts as to the future of the U.S.-French relationship. "France is no longer the ally it once was," Perle said, adding that Chirac "believes deep in his soul that Saddam Hussein is preferable to any likely successor."

Members of Chirac's governing Union Pour la Majorité Presidentielle (UMP) party have traveled to Baghdad repeatedly in recent months to promote Franco-Iraqi trade and a political partnership with Saddam, as have senior officials of the extreme right-wing National Front, including the wife of its leader, Jean-Marie LePen.

Among Chirac's allies is Thierry Mariani, a UMP member of parliament who spearheads the Franco-Iraqi Economic Cooperation Association, a pro-Iraqi lobbying group. After a high-profile (and highly criticized) trip to Baghdad last September, Mariani explained his motivation: "I prefer that we had relations with Iraq rather than with Saudi Arabia. Between two dictatorships, I prefer a secular dictatorship to a totalitarian Islamic regime." Mariani said he believed that France was engaged in an "economic war" with the United States which justified strengthening economic ties to Baghdad [see
"Eurobiz Is Caught Arming Saddam," Feb. 18 - March 3].

IFRI's Moisi believes that the future of the U.S.-French relationship depends on how the war itself plays out. "If it's a quick war, won decisively by the Americans, we will keep quiet. If the war doesn't go well, that will be different. It's the aftermath of war that I fear," he says.

France indeed may try to keep quiet after a stunning U.S. victory that brings democracy to Iraq. But will the new Iraqi government forgive the French for their outrageous support of Saddam?

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.
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