Liberté, Egalité, Absurdité
By JOHN J. MILLER
Published: January 3, 2005
LA plus ça change. In 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson sent marines to the Dominican Republic to protect American citizens during a violent civil war, President Charles de Gaulle of France condemned the intervention. In a secret message to Washington, however, he asked for help defending the French Embassy. Johnson did so, but never heard a word of thanks, in public or private. Instead, de Gaulle went on to demand that the United States withdraw from Vietnam and, eventually, to pull his own forces out of NATO.
George W. Bush must know exactly how Johnson felt. Shortly after Mr. Bush’s re-election, the current French president, Jacques Chirac, called the post-Saddam Hussein world “more dangerous,” announced that the United States doesn’t “return favors” to Europe and even accused Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld of “a lack of culture.” He managed to stuff all these comments into a single interview, which happened to coincide with Mr. Bush’s firm support for a French military crackdown in the Ivory Coast, where antigovernment insurgents have endangered French citizens, the last remnant of Paris’s colonial regime there.
Yet it’s a mistake to assume that Mr. Chirac’s rhetoric was just a clumsy expression of pent-up frustration with American voters. French foreign policy in the 1960’s was not driven by a leader’s personal antipathy for a brash Texan in the White House, and neither is today’s. Regime change in the United States might have led John Kerry to slap Mr. Chirac on the back and say, “Lafayette, we are here!” - but nothing would have altered the underlying fact that France has for decades viewed the United States as a unique threat.
The root of the problem is Gaullism itself. More than just a form of nationalism, Gaullism insists that France must exert an outsized influence on the course of human events. During the cold war, de Gaulle spoke of his country leading Europe as “one of three world powers and, if need be one day, the arbiter between the two camps, the Soviet and the Anglo-Saxon.” Hence de Gaulle developed a nuclear arsenal, threatened to destabilize the dollar and criticized American military actions.
Mr. Chirac and his neo-Gaullists recognize that France can no longer serve as a fulcrum between East and West, but they believe their country still has a vital role to play in containing the world’s “hyperpower,” in their pejorative labeling of the United States. On the cultural front, this agenda can manifest itself in bizarre rear guard actions. Most ridiculously, a French court has declared that the film “Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles” (“A Very Long Engagement”) is not eligible to compete in French film festivals, despite having being filmed in France, in the French language, with hundreds of French actors and technicians. Its offense: receiving financial backing from Warner Brothers.
In world politics, the French are much more aggressive. Before the invasion of Iraq, Paris didn’t just express reservations - it tried to sabotage American goals in every feasible venue, from the chambers of the Security Council to the committee rooms of NATO. Since then, it has issued a raft of demands, including the hasty transfer of sovereignty to an ad hoc Iraqi government, as well as a date certain by which the United States will remove its troops, no matter the circumstances.
Mr. Chirac’s diplomats even spent October lobbying unsuccessfully for Iraqi insurgent groups - the ones now killing American troops and Iraqi civilians - to be represented at the international summit in Egypt in November. It is difficult to see how French interests are furthered in any way by this behavior, unless France is understood to believe that its own aims are advanced whenever American ones are thwarted.
Dean Acheson once was asked to recommend a course of action with respect to de Gaulle. He advised an “empty chair” policy - that is, French-American relations would improve only after de Gaulle had left the scene. This wait-and-see approach may have made sense at the time, but not today. While Mr. Chirac is 72, he might seek an unprecedented third term in 2007. Even if he doesn’t, his successor could be Dominique de Villepin, the former foreign minister who under heavy questioning found himself unable to say he hoped for an American military victory in Iraq. Whatever happens, neo-Gaullism will continue to inform French attitudes.
Condoleezza Rice, now Mr. Bush’s nominee for secretary of state, was quoted in 2003 as telling colleagues that the United States should “punish France.” This is a tempting tactic, for it holds out the promise of vengeful satisfaction. It was also the motive behind the recent campaigns to boycott French products. Unbeknownst to most of the participants, however, the consumer strategy was tried without much success in the 1960’s. In truth, Paris isn’t worth a boycott.
Thinking otherwise only buys into the Gaullist claim that France should occupy a place of reverence in the community of nations. But why should its views matter any more than, say, Italy, whose population and economy are nearly the same size? The United States may choose to work with France on a few areas of mutual diplomatic interest - Haiti and perhaps Iran - but in general, the marginal amounts of aid and peacekeeping help Paris can offer hardly merit concessions on our part. And if France threatens to undermine American interests with its Security Council veto, we should call its bluff, pointing out that such behavior merely weakens the institution that is the prime source of France’s undeserved prestige. (Despite all the bluster, France has not used its veto power unilaterally since 1976.)
Moreover, making an example of the French is precisely the wrong approach because it elevates France in the eyes of the world’s anti-Americans, who will always be with us. The one thing France and the neo-Gaullists can’t possibly abide is being ignored. Perhaps that’s punishment enough.
John J. Miller is a writer for National Review and co-author of “Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France.”