Francophobia vs. Francophilia

6 February 2003

By Stentor Danielson

It's tough to be part of the debate over the coming war against Iraq without developing an opinion about France. While Germany, Russia, and China share its position on the war question, it's France that gets showered with love or hate by America's pundits. Hawks (who, like most Americans, probably had an irrational hatred of the French to start out with) see France as the avatar of the shortsighted peacemongering that stands in the way of a real solution to the Iraqi menace. Doves are quick to point to France as the spokescountry for antiwar sentiment in the global community.

France is neither an angel nor a demon. Both sides would do well to remember that.

The antiwar camp looks to France to give peace the political clout that demonstrations and opinion columns can't exert -- A.N.S.W.E.R. doesn’t have a veto on the UN Security Council, after all. Moderates banked on French opposition to war when they urged President Bush to work through the UN instead of attacking Iraq unilaterally and illegally. For a time, that worked. Between Secretary of State Colin Powell's relatively dovish sentiments and the fact that the US needed time to build up its military forces in the Persian Gulf, the US ended up accepting a version of Security Council Resolution 1441 that largely reflected the French position of calling for more inspections before war would be considered, rather than the American position of indicting Saddam for the past ten years of intransigence.

The UN inspectors have finished the first phase of their work, and neither the French nor the peace movement like the result. Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix's report to the UN has been widely interpreted by hawks as confirmation that Iraq is in breach of Resolution 1441. The French see things differently, and have threatened to renege on their agreement not to require yet another UN resolution before the US can invade.

Yet this is not entirely the principled opposition to war that the antiwar movement would like to think it is. France's opposition can be seen largely as a continuation of Europe’s efforts to establish itself as a counterbalance to US power in the post-Cold War world. Americans may not mind being a hegemon with unfettered ability to project its power -- and with it, its values and interests -- around the globe, but France feels threatened by the prospect of American dominance.

This is reflected in French reaction to a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which the leaders of nine European countries bucked France and Germany's contrarian line and expressed support for the US. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said, "The divergence over Iraq is a reflection of the 20th century, rather than the 21st century Europe" -- an indication that he sees Europe uniting (likely in the Franco-German dominated European Union) to become a major power broker.

America's position on the war is all about oil, though ... and, it turns out, so is France's. Just as the US stands to benefit petroleum-wise from taking over Iraq, France stands to benefit from keeping Saddam in place. The Franco-Iraqi oil trade is currently going smoothly, and France’s outspoken opposition to war no doubt helps to keep things that way. But with American troops in the Persian Gulf, Iraqi rebel leader Ahmad Chalabi in the presidential palace on America's behalf, and Iraqi oil revenue going to finance the invasion, France's prospects are much more grim. It's in France’s interest to keep Iraqi oil in the hands of a tinpot dictator dependent on oil sales rather than the hands of a potentially unfriendly superpower.

All of this means that France can't be counted on as a principled defender of peace. France is playing the same strategic game that the US, Britain, Germany, China, Australia, and every other country are playing.

Hawks have seized upon France’s less-than-pure motives for peace and used them to dismiss "Old Europe" or the "Axis of Weasels" (so gleefully at times that one suspects some may hate Jacques Chirac more than they hate Saddam Hussein).

To many, the French are essentially ungrateful moochers. The US saved those "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" (to use an apt phrase coined by Groundskeeper Willy on The Simpsons) in World War II, and is now preparing to save them from the menace of Iraq. If the premise that the war is in the interests of the survival of the West is granted, hawks' frustration over French obstruction is understandable.

Nevertheless, descending into gratuitous France-bashing is counterproductive. France draws its strength in this fight from a body of public opinion that sees America as an arrogant bully, throwing its weight around with the kind of hubris that comes from being a global hegemon. French anti-Americanism is no more excusable than American anti-Frenchism (which is to say, reasonable critiques of the country's policy and culture are excusable but knee-jerk hatred is not). Yet it is real, and something that must be accounted for rather than reciprocated.

Comments about an "Axis of Weasels" only add to France's motivation to assert its power vis-à-vis the US. A more circumspect approach that acknowledged Europeans’ misgivings about the US and worked to gain cooperation from recalcitrant allies would smooth the road to Baghdad. And even if brash dismissal of France's significance browbeats the country into acquiescing to war, it does nothing to gain support for future efforts. Remember, Iraq is only the first of three members of the Axis of Evil.

France has a tendency to show up in American war rhetoric as an archetype of the rhetorician's view of peace -- a principled stand against aggression, or a spineless obstructionism. Both sides would be well served to remember that France is just another country.

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