The French Spin a Different War Story

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

Posted April 17, 2003 - Issue: 04/29/03




The news had been bad from the start. U.S. and British troops were "bogged down" in southern Iraq in the face of "fierce resistance" from Iraqi forces loyal to Saddam Hussein. U.S. supply lines had been cut, and an ambush by cunning Iraqi defenders had killed dozens of U.S. troops. American prisoners of war, shown on French television in footage that was withheld in the United States, seemed pitiably small, helpless and afraid. U.S. helicopters were crashing like mosquitoes hitting a bug zapper, and a U.S. Patriot missile had shot down a British warplane in a friendly-fire incident that risked alienating public opinion in Great Britain, America's only ally in this go-it-alone war.


By the end of the week, French media pundits concluded, the blitzkrieg promised by President George W. Bush and his advisers had become a "quagmire." Civilians were being massacred by trigger-happy U.S. troops committing war crimes. Antiwar protests around the world showed how "isolated" America was, while protesters in the United States were calling for "regime change" in Washington rather than Baghdad.


The average Frenchman listening to state-run France Inter radio or Antenne 2 television during the first week of the war in Iraq saw the United States spiraling toward a humiliating defeat, and Bush, the "cowboy" president, headed for ignominy if not impeachment. In tones that mixed elation and awe, newsmen and pundits began speculating on how the Middle East would look the day after the United States lost the war against Saddam. Wouldn't this dramatic display of U.S. vulnerability encourage other nations and terrorist groups to challenge overrated U.S. military might?


Most striking in the French coverage was the total absence of any criticism of government policy, or of President Jacques Chirac - a president who squeaked past voters in the first round of last year's elections with a little more than 18 percent of the vote, neck and neck with extreme-right leader Jean-Marie LePen. In normal times the opposition Socialist Party would have been all over Chirac, and France's lively opinion journals would have skewered his policies from all sides. But the French war coverage was not merely one-sided, it was viciously inaccurate and openly anti-American. Propaganda is too polite a term for the type of deliberate brainwashing conducted by the official state media. This reporter has seen nothing like it in 18 years of covering France.


If you were French and listened exclusively to France's state-run media, you never would have known that the United States and Britain had been joined by 40 other nations in a coalition to disarm Iraq and oust the regime of Saddam Hussein because the media failed to report it. You would have missed the fact that nearly a dozen Arab nations supported the war - with many of them allowing coalition forces to use their airfields, ports and territory as staging areas - because the news focused exclusively on the anger of the Arab "street." You would never have known that the American public overwhelmingly supported President Bush and the war, nor would you have understood that the administration planned to use Iraq's oil resources for the benefit of the Iraqi people to rebuild Iraq. You would have thought the United States was isolated, its president a dangerous lunatic and the administration full of greedy oil barons who were set on world domination for personal and corporate profit.


In the final days before hostilities began, for instance, the Radio France flagship station France Inter ran an hourlong special program devoted to the "antiwar" movement in Britain and the United States. "Let's listen to other voices from Great Britain and the United States," the show's host announced on March 18. He then claimed that the war was rejected overwhelmingly by U.S. and British intellectuals such as 91-year-old playwright Arthur Miller and British thriller writer John le Carré. "In the United States, they are afraid of these people and prevent them from speaking," the host confided.


"This war with Iraq that George Bush has started ..."


"Is even worse than Vietnam," le Carré said, completing the interviewer's sentence.


"And they are all in agreement," the journalist continued, stating another common theme of the French version of the war. "This is a war for oil."


It is virtually impossible even in intelligent circles in France today to make an argument that the war in Iraq is motivated by anything other than oil. After all, no modern French government has ever called its people to war with the stated mission of liberating the people of another nation from tyranny, so it's absurd to believe the United States could act on such motivation. "Before Baghdad has even fallen," wrote the Washington correspondent of the center-right daily Le Figaro on April 7, "the Americans are preparing the energy future of the country. ... After having invented the concept of 'preventive war,' the Americans have now inaugurated the concept of 'lucrative peace.'"


Writing for the official French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP), commentator Karim Sahib stated the case directly: "For most of those who oppose the war against Iraq, the control of Iraqi oil is the main reason the Bush administration pushed toward confrontation. The fact that the American president and his vice president, Dick Cheney, both emerged from the Texas oil industry and were brought to the summit of the political chessboard by the oil lobbies has fueled the fires of 'No blood for oil' protesters. ... Removing Saddam from power and installing a government more favorable to the Americans will permit the United States more easily to put their hands on Iraq's [oil] reserves, the second largest in the world."


A parallel theme "explains" the U.S. war fever by depicting America as a neo-fascist state that has silenced voices of protests using McCarthy-era tactics. Under the USA PATRIOT Act, novelist le Carré said, "Any mailman who sees a book on Islam at your house can denounce you as someone potentially dangerous. It's hallucinatory! Nothing has changed since 1952. We're in full security hysteria in the United States."


In a news panel the next evening - just hours before the initial air strikes against the al-Daura farm where Saddam and his sons were believed to be spending the night - a France Inter commentator spoke of America's "disgraceful nationalism" in the wake of 9/11. Europe had learned the dangers of nationalism from the Nazi era, he said. America had not.


In a pop-culture show later that evening geared to younger listeners, a disc jockey played a smooth cut-and-paste of speeches by President Bush - in his own voice - assembled to convey precisely the opposite of their original meaning. To a driving rock beat of "Allahu akbar" [God is greater], the president announced that the United States "is about to launch attacks against Great Britain and 40 other countries. ... We are attacking freedom. ... The name of today's operation is called Enduring Fear. ... The people of Iraq will suffer. ... We are attacking freedom." There was not a shred of humor in the presentation. It was a crude attempt at arousing anti-American hate and even violence by appealing to the huge Muslim population in France to identify Americans as the enemies of God. Yasser Arafat uses similar tactics in the state-run mosques in his Palestinian Authority to incite hatred of Jews.


A half-hour interview with former French ambassador to Tunisia Eric Rouleau, a hard-left commentator who never was tender on America in the best of times, sounded another theme the French government has been eager to convey: The U.S. "attack" on Iraq was going to provoke waves of anti-West terrorism as young people revolted against the U.S. "occupation" of Arab land. Rouleau said he had just returned from Saudi Arabia, where he had met Crown Prince Abdullah and other leaders. They told him the problems they had faced with al-Qaeda terrorists were the result of the "U.S. occupation of Saudi Arabia since 1991." The mood throughout the Arab world was gloomy, brooding, pessimistic, Rouleau said. The biggest fear among the Arabs, according to Rouleau, was that Israel would use the opportunity of the war to carry out "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians.


"Do you understand what you're saying?" the journalist asked, reminding Rouleau that the charge of ethnic cleansing was emotionally charged and usually connoted mass murder. "I'm just telling you what the Palestinians fear," Rouleau replied blandly. "There will be massacres, of course."


The sense of national hallucination that has gripped France is being driven by the nation's leaders. President Chirac showed during last year's runoff election against LePen that he has the demagogue's talent for demonizing an enemy. In demagoguing the war in Iraq, Chirac realized he could rally France's diverse political parties behind him by denouncing U.S. "unilateralism" in favor of "international law" and "legitimacy," areas where France feels it can play as America's equal. With the media and government piled on, America has few defenders in France today.


Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a deeply anti-American former defense minister, said the conflict was a U.S.-led "war of recolonialization that will inevitably lead to a war of national liberation." Writing in Le Monde on April 7, he said the "real question now is the withdrawal of U.S. troops ... because for the United States, military victory has already lost any rational political sense." The war, he claimed, "has been dreamed up by the Pentagon strategists as a war of world domination through the occupation of Iraq and the control of the Middle East. ... We need to help the United States to profoundly revise their relations with 'the rest of the world.'" A Socialist, he had only praise for Chirac and his anti-U.S. policies.


An opinion poll published on April 1 in the daily Le Monde showed that Frenchmen by a slim majority (53 percent) nevertheless hoped for a coalition victory in Iraq. (The question did not use the world "coalition," but rather a victory of "American-British forces.") Of much greater concern was the second half of the poll. Fully 25 percent of Frenchmen polled said they hoped Saddam would win the war.


Sensing that the demagoguery had gone too far, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told an audience in Clermont-Ferrand on March 31 that they needed to return to reason. "We think this war is not a good alternative," he said, reminding listeners of the reasons his government refused to endorse the coalition effort. "But this is not a reason to mistake the enemy. The Americans are not the enemies. Our camp is the camp of democracy." An unnamed "source" close to Chirac issued a similar statement from the Elysee Palace. "The president has always denounced the dictatorial regime in Baghdad and has reaffirmed that we are allies of the United States," the spokesman said. To thus describe the positions of a president who for more than a quarter-century has publicly referred to Saddam as a "personal friend" is yet another example of the Alice-in-Wonderland mood that has gripped France.


For the French prime minister to feel that he needed to remind the media and the public that America is not the enemy shows the extent of the damage Chirac has done to U.S.-French relations. Since his statement, the French desperately have been trying to mend fences, insisting that the United Nations assume the primary role for postwar reconstruction in Iraq. "No one should think Iraq will be an El Dorado to be split up," the French foreign minister told the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. The French media have reported extensively on efforts by Congress and the administration to "punish" France for its opposition to the war by banning French companies from postwar reconstruction projects. "The civilian leadership of the Pentagon, which gives the Bush administration its radical tone, are brutally clear: Chirac must pay for his insolence," Le Figaro reported from Washington. The real U.S. goal in the postwar era is "to dilute the European Union," the paper stated, quoting a French researcher with the Brookings Institution. "More than ever, the U.S. rejects Jacques Chirac's project to convert Europe into a counterweight to the power of the United States."


But, while the French are scrambling to gain a commercial foothold in postwar Iraq by insisting on a renewed U.N. role in distributing aid and reconstruction contracts, their skewed war reporting continues.


Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine. email the author