French Without Tears

March 1, 2005 Topics: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: EthnocentrismSlaverySociology

French Without Tears

Mini Teaser: Cet animal est très méchant; quand on l'attaque, il se défend. Quelquefois.

by Author(s): Martin Walker

Whether monarchy, republic or empire, Miller and Molesky entertainingly recount how French interests--and thus French policy--did not change. Within a month of becoming president, Jefferson was sounding the alarm about French ambitions to build "New France" in Louisiana, which became one motive behind the Lewis and Clark expedition. "The day that France takes possession of New Orleans fixes the sentence. . . . From that moment we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation", Jefferson wrote. Madison boasted of an army of American militia poised to take the city. Napoleon was ready for war, until he learned that the French army in Santo Domingo had been destroyed by yellow fever. At that point, he cut his losses and authorized Foreign Minister Talleyrand to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. The Bonapartes were not quite done with North America: Napoleon's comic-opera nephew, Napoleon III, tried to take advantage of the Civil War to establish a French protectorate in Mexico.

Villepin's other hero, Charles de Gaulle, is seen by Miller and Molesky as "the worst . . . of all the arrogant Frenchmen who had put their thumbs in American eyes." They cite de Gaulle's instinctive response when awoken in 1942 with the news that American troops had landed in Vichy-controlled North Africa: "Well, I hope the people of Vichy throw them into the sea. You can't break into France and get away with it." The Germans had of course gotten away with it (and a lot of Frenchmen helped them do so), and any hope of liberation lay with the Anglo-Saxons.

All this is useful and important, but Miller and Molesky take matters just a few millimeters too far for their engaging polemic to be taken too seriously as scholarship. Just because Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot studied in Paris, one cannot blame the Cambodian genocide on the French. While French intellectuals had a great deal to do with existentialism and structuralism, with deconstructionism and post-modernism, it is a stretch to conclude: "Not only did the postwar French intellectuals prepare the tainted broth from which future despots would drink, their poisoned leftism also inspired them to invent modern anti-Americanism." And while the Treaty of Versailles has few admirers, it verges on the outrageous to say that World War II "was as much the product of French intransigence and vengefulness as it was Hitler's lust for dominion."

Above all, Miller and Molesky do not seem to grasp the degree to which France seeks to exercise her traditional diplomacy through the European Union. Just as the more insufferable Brits used to pontificate about their being the Greeks to the American Romans, the French have a metaphor about a French rider guiding the German horse that pulls the European cart. "The U.S. has a clear incentive not to let Paris emerge as the capital city of a new axis of anti-Americanism", Miller and Molesky conclude, which is obvious enough, but only takes on real significance in a broader European context. These days, France alone is little more than a nuisance.

It is at this point that we can hail a treasure. French Negotiating Behavior, by the former CIA station chief in Paris, Charles Cogan, is a real discovery, a gem of a book that starts where Miller and Molesky leave off, but clearly knows a great deal more about France, its history and the self-defeating and arrogant way the Quai d'Orsay goes about its diplomacy. This has become so offensive that even some Frenchmen are starting to notice. Cogan cites former-Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine saying:

"We've got to be careful lest our European partners end up saying that if by chance the French were to find themselves in the same position as the Americans today, they'd be even more unbearable than the Americans! Many Europeans think this already."

Cogan's book is profoundly useful, because he understands the degree to which the French today believe their country and system to be in deep crisis and to be even more imperiled than Britain during its 1970s decline. The French problem runs much deeper than the economic mismanagement and fits of self-doubt that Margaret Thatcher so briskly addressed and corrected, because the French grand strategy of the last forty years is crumbling in their hands. Europe is not prepared to be the vehicle to maintain French greatness, and Germany is too big, too rich and increasingly too self-confident to play the equal, let alone the horse to France's cavalier. The European Union of 25 countries, and soon perhaps thirty, including Turkey, is beyond any hope of French control.

After France's humiliation at U.S. hands over Suez in 1956, German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer told premier Guy Mollet, "Europe will be your revenge." And at least until German unification, Adenauer's advice seemed to hold good. But France then damaged its own economy with high interest rates to maintain "le franc fort", a currency strong enough to take France into the euro. This was Mitterand's price for accepting German unification, locking Germany into the ultimate European institution of a common currency. And just as the price of unification was a decade of low growth and high unemployment for the former powerhouse of Europe, along with the sacrifice of the deutschemark, the price of the euro has been equally dispiriting for France's economy. Moreover, the new enlarged Europe is no longer made to French specifications. Increasingly Europe speaks English, looks to Thatcherite principles of free trade and free markets, to lower taxes and privatization, and rejects the French concept of state-led industrial strategies.

"For having too long believed that Europe was being built in its own image, the French suffer today from not recognizing themselves in it", noted Pascal Lamy and Jean Pisani-Ferry in 2002, in one of many quotes astutely chosen by Cogan. (Lamy, an excellent EU trade commissioner, may well be a future Socialist president of France, and Pisani-Ferry could well be his prime minister.) "The French see themselves diminished in the face of a Germany numerically more powerful and an England politically more alert."

No American diplomat or official should henceforth be allowed to set foot on the European continent without having read, swallowed and inwardly digested Cogan's book. Thoughtful American tourists are also strongly advised to read this distillation of a long career's wisdom and to ponder Cogan's three case studies of French diplomacy in action: France's failed bid to get the Mediterranean command in return for rejoining NATO; the Uruguay Round on trade; and the tangled period between the happy agreement of the NATO summit in Prague in November 2002, the Franco-American confrontation at the UN in February 2003, and the outbreak of war in March. Cogan gives a masterly summary of this last crisis, citing French sources to note that a French general was in the Pentagon in December of 2002, declaring that 15,000 French troops and 100 warplanes would be available in the event of war. And on January 7, 2003, speaking at the Ecole Militaire, President Chirac told his troops to prepare for action.

So, what has been hailed in France as the "revelation" in the Bob Woodward-style book, Chirac contre Bush--that Chirac was quite prepared to go to war and had prepared the French army to fight in Iraq--is not so new after all. It is entertaining to learn that President Bush's nickname for Jacques Chirac is "Jackass", and not a great surprise to read that the Americans were able to bug Chirac even in his Elysée palace. The authors claim that a senior U.S. official told a French counterpart, "The relationship between your president and ours is irreparable on the personal level. You have to understand that President Bush knows exactly what President Chirac thinks of him." (Given Chirac's contempt for Bush, for Bush to call him "Jackass" in return seems fairly mild.) They offer some interesting details. It seems plausible that the French and Germans were drawn to work more closely together in New York after the French were invited to make use of the glass anti-bugging cage installed in the German mission. They may or may not be right to say that Bush was irritated from the start by Chirac's constant references to his father, the 41st president, which were interpreted as a crude attempt to remind Bush Junior to respect his elders.

But go back to that crucial two weeks between Chirac's speech to the Ecole Militaire on January 7 and then-Foreign Minister Villepin's famous January 20 "ambush" of Secretary of State Colin Powell at a UN meeting convened by Villepin to discuss "terrorism", after which Villepin gave a press conference saying "we believe that today nothing justifies envisaging military action." What changed?

None of the books on offer has a clear explanation. French officials now say that it was partly the reflex decision to adopt a "European position" by supporting the anti-war stance of German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The current French ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, took a high-minded line in a lecture at MIT: "If this were not a matter of principle, don't you think we would have jumped on the bandwagon of war?" Miller and Molesky cite Richard Holbrooke saying that it was routine French brinkmanship: "The classic play out of the Charles de Gaulle playbook; hold out to the end, get more leverage."

Essay Types: Book Review