French Common Sense And The Furia Friedmania

by Diana Johnstone

October 20, 2003


The United States' voracious demand for enemies chronically exceeds the supply. Responding to the law of supply and demand, New York Times foreign-affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman has aligned with Fox News and the Congressional potato patriots by designating France as "our enemy." (1)

Compared to the usual run-of-the-mill threats, France has the advantage of audience recognition. Just about everybody has heard of it, and many Americans could even find it on a map. Moreover, France meets a key criterion for selection as "enemy:" neither the population nor the nation's leadership have done, spoken or even thought anything remotely hostile enough to warrant such special attention. Finding themselves the objects of trans-Atlantic wrath is as baffling to the French as it was to the Serbs.

Of course, nobody expects the United States to go so far as to wage real war against this "enemy," although in the age of Schwarzenegger, nothing is impossible. The idea seems merely to rant and rave against a country whose government committed the unthinkable lèse majesté of challenging US "preventive war." Outside the United States, most people realized that Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" probably did not exist, and were a transparent pretext for the long-planned conquest of Iraq. French president Jacques Chirac and his foreign minister Dominique de Villepin called the WMD bluff simply by taking the pretext literally, concluding logically that whether or not such weapons exist, the sensible course was to complete the U.N. search for them. The US refusal to accept this reasonable proposal made it even more clear to the world that "weapons of mass destruction" were simply a transparent pretext for the United States to conquer an oil-soaked, strategically important but militarily enfeebled Arab state in the Middle East, for the mutual benefit of Israel and the Bush-Cheney business cronies who have been picking up the "reconstruction" contracts.

Paris's failure to play along aroused fury in Washington. The Bushies, Rummies, Wolfies and Cheneys must put Jacques back in the box. Friedman is there to help, by:

- Distracting attention from unwelcome criticism by attributing it to frivolous and vain motives. Friedman: "France wants America to sink in a quagmire there [in Iraq] in the crazy hope that a weakened U.S. will pave the way for France to assume its 'rightful' place as America's equal, if not superior, in shaping world affairs."

- Providing a scapegoat for the quagmire. For Friedman, it's the fault of the ungrateful French for not rushing to bail us out of the mess they warned us not to get into.

The bitter joke is that France has its own stable of pundits as abject as Friedman. Half a dozen of them were gleefully cited in a recent article in the International Herald Tribune. (2) Not so new Paris "philosophers" and assorted "experts" were hailed for their diatribes against France's pretension to retain scraps of independent foreign and domestic policy. Such independence, they warn, is leading France into decline, disarray and isolation from "the West." In fact, the general tone of mainstream French commentary, concentrated in the two dailies most read by the educated classes, Le Monde and Libération, is far more critical of France than of the United States. Far from seeking a "rightful place as world leader," many commentators clearly want France to resume its "rightful place" as America's flunky.

Although Chirac's policy on Iraq meets with overwhelmingly popular approval in the French population and in the rest of the world, it has encountered only mild support in the country's media, whose stock in trade is glorification of most things American. On this score, the significant distinction is not between "right" and "left." Indeed, it seems most likely that had [socialist] Lionel Jospin won the last presidential election, a left coalition government would not have dared defy both the media and Washington by taking as strong a position as did Chirac against the war on Iraq.

The more relevant difference on such issues may concern factors such as historic experience. Over forty years ago, General de Gaulle had the wisdom -- or common sense, as you will -- to end France's war to retain its Algerian colony by negotiating a "peace of the brave." France had the military means to stay, and de Gaulle had to stand up to enraged French officers who plotted to assassinate him. Neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac claims that he learned from his experience serving as a young officer in Algeria. There is no reason not to believe him. He learned that it is wise to stay out of quagmires. US leaders reject any such lesson.

US Francophobes cherish the stereotype of a France -- and especially de Gaulle -- jealously clinging to lost "gloire" This has nothing whatever to do with French reality. The real debate in Paris is whether to ride a new wave of aggressive imperialism on Uncle Sam's coattails, or to seek to build genuine international understanding and legality. For at least a moment, Chirac and de Villepin chose the second option. In today's world, such good sense is rare and may be fleeting. Meanwhile, the world should be thankful for small favors.

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1.  Thomas Friedman, "Our War With France," The New York Times, 18 September 2003, p. A27  (back)

2.  John Vinocur, "For its intellectuals, France falters," International Herald Tribune, 2 October 2003, p.1  (back)



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Diana Johnstone is a widely-published essayist and columnist who has written extensively on European and international politics. She is the author of The Politics of Euromissiles: Europe's Role in America's World (Verso, 1985). Her writings have been published in may publications such as New Left Review, In These Times, The Nation, Counterpunch, and Covert Action Quarterly. The introduction of her latest book, Fools' Crusade: Yugoslavia, Nato, and Western Delusions, Monthly Review Press, 2003, ISBN: 1-58367-084-X, was published on Swans in May 2003 (as well as three reviews whose links are appended at the end of the excerpt).

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Published October 20, 2003
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