Tuesday, August 31, 2004

It would be nice to know what the French really think

It seems that both President Chirac and Foreign Minister Michel Barnier have temporarily suspended the traditional Franco-American hostility. They both made speeches last week to the annual conference of French ambassadors and both refused to criticize either the United States or the war in Iraq.

This could have something to do with the fact that France is hoping to secure a few lucrative deals with the new Iraqi government or with the fact that both Chirac and Barnier have suddenly realized that the Americans mean what they say about the restructuring of their defence policy. Or it might mean, in M Barnier’s case that he is anxious for the world to know that he is not Dominique de Villepin.

M Barnier is possibly the most European-minded of the leading French politicians. In his speech on Thursday he made his preoccupation quite clear:

“The first reflex, I say bluntly, must be European. I know that this evolution is not inscribed in the long and prestigious history of our ministry. But the influence of our country depends on it.”
M Barnier called on France not to be arrogant. Well, pigs might just manage to take off from the nearest airport.

Apart from that, M Barnier’s speech was notable more for what it omitted than what it contained. There was no mention of the United States, of Russia, of NATO, of the Middle East or of the war against terrorism. That covers most of the important foreign affairs issues.

Instead, he talked of the great diplomatic challenges facing France today: attacks on the global environment, health epidemics like AIDS and poverty. This must have perplexed his audience, the 150 ambassadors. Presumably, they had had no special diplomatic training for dealing with AIDS.

The three problems are really one, poverty in the Third World. It is hard to forget the efforts France has been making in solving it, whether it be financial and political support for corrupt and oppressive tyrants, like Mugabe or refusing to open up trade in agricultural goods. (see A Rapacious Predator)

President Chirac’s speech to the same audience on Friday was less cautious but also rather emollient. He stayed away from criticizing the United States and explained that France was looking forward to having a fruitful relationship with the new Iraqi government. As fruitful as the dealing with the old Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein’s, presumably.

Not mentioning the United States has its up sides as well as down sides. He could not openly express his usual disdain for that country; on the other hand he could congratulate the United Nations for organizing the hand-over of power in Iraq and suggest that France was somehow participant in the process.

His desire to help Iraq did not extend too far, though. Chirac has notoriously and bad-temperedly enough to be criticized by his own media, refused to allow NATO troops to train the army or police in Iraq, particularly if that involves French troops coming under American command. Since there are not all that many French troops available, the question is purely academic.

Nor is Chirac prepared to go as far as other countries in writing off Iraq’s debts. The US has proposed 90 per cent, Britain and Japan 80 per cent. In his speech, after the flowery general statements, the French President proposed 50 per cent.

Getting away from generalities, both Chirac and Barnier have had to deal with a vexing problem. A militant Islamic group in Iraq has kidnapped two French journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, and has threatened to kill them if France does not rescind the recent legislative ban on pupils wearing headscarves to school.

This is a most extraordinary mess for the French government to get into. The number of girls who insist (or whose families insist) on wearing scarves is very small. But the French state that has fought a long, vicious and, ultimately, victorious battle with the Catholic Church for education will always consider the display of religious symbols a challenge to its own power.

At the same time, there is a belated and very slow understanding that the many millions of Muslims in France are dissatisfied with what they justifiably see as a second class citizen status. Whether antagonizing the entire community over the question of the headscarf is sensible, remains to be seen.

In the meantime the French government and the French people have had to come to terms with the fact that fierce opposition to the Iraq war does not make them immune from attacks by Iraqi militants. The two journalists have appeard on Al-Jazeera, pleading, in English, curiously enough, with the French government to rescind the law in order to save their lives and with the people of France to come out in demonstrations.

The deadline has been extended by 24 hours. Michel Barnier is in Egypt, hoping that the Egyptian government will be able to negotiate a deal for the release of the hostages. The French government has refused to rescind the law and thousands of people have demonstrated across France, particularly in Paris, in solidarity with the journalists.

In Egypt Barnier has made a heartfelt plea:

“These two men of goodwill have always shown their understanding for these people and their fondness for the Arab and Muslim world.”

“I call for their release in the name of principles of humanity and respect for the human being which are at the very heart of the message of Islam and the religious practices of Muslims.”
It is a little hard to know what those comments mean and even harder to understand President Chirac’s reference to France’s stance over the Iraqi war:

“France ensures equality, the respect and protection of the free practising of all religions.”

“ These values of respect and tolerance inspire our actions everywhere in the world ... They also inspired France's policy in Iraq.”
How very odd. Was implicit support for Saddam Hussein and a refusal to allow any international policy at all that might result in his deposition really inspired by values of respect and tolerance?

It seems that the French government will be forced to recgnize that the world is a somewhat more complicated place than had appeared before. Apparently, the Americans are not the only “baddies” even as far as France is concerned.

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