The Magazine

Righteous Frenchmen

Yes, there are a few pro-Americans in France.

Mar 31, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 28 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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PIERRE LELLOUCHE, who represents a Paris district in the French National Assembly, did not appreciate being called "Pierre Laval" during a recent foreign policy debate in parliament. A leading defense expert who backed Ronald Reagan's strong stand against the Soviet Union in the 1980s when many in France thought it reckless, Lellouche is a member of the neo-Gaullist Union for the Presidential Majority, led by President Jacques Chirac. But he opposes Chirac's policy on Iraq. To liken Lellouche, who is of Tunisian Jewish background, to Vichy prime minister Laval, who ordered French police to assist in the Holocaust, is worse than tasteless. It's a historical fraud, assimilating pro-Nazi "collaboration" during World War II with support for the United States today, and anti-Nazi "resistance" with opposition to unseating Saddam Hussein.

The reality, according to Lellouche, is that President Chirac and the left, which supports his Iraq policy, are the ones who are engaging in a policy of appeasement, as Laval did in the 1930s and 1940s. "Nobody wants war," Lellouche notes, "but it is Saddam [not Bush] who is a mass-murderer." With the French media and political class overwhelmingly behind Chirac, Lellouche is one of a handful of prominent politicians willing to speak up for Bush's Iraq policy. But these few are making themselves heard.

The most remarkable sign of this is the support their views are receiving in France's large immigrant community, which comes mainly from Islamic countries in North Africa. In March, for example, the writer Ferhat Mehenni, a prominent Algerian expatriate activist, published a long analysis of the Middle East crisis in "La Dépêche de Kabylie," an Algerian publication in Paris. He wrote: "The U.S. goal is to democratize the Middle East to eradicate the sources of terrorism and substitute regimes of liberty for confrontations between cultures. . . . [F]or France, the stakes are the viability of its Jacobin model, its influence in this part of the world, and its oil supplies, guaranteed by Saddam."

Ferhat Mehenni is here making a connection between France's centralizing, authoritarian, statist, "Jacobin" tradition and its aggressive opposition to an American international program that, he believes, would encourage decentralized, democratic forms of government respectful of cultural and religious differences, not only in the Middle East but also in the ex-French colonies of Africa, which are his chief concern. This latter is known as the "Girondin" political tradition (from the Jacobins' opponents during the Revolution), and it is represented in politics by libertarians like former finance minister Alain Madelin (whom Ferhat Mehenni supports) and in the world of ideas by writers like Jean-François Revel.

In this regard, it is by no means certain that French public opinion is as pro-Chirac as is being reported in the American press. Revel's new book, "The Anti-American Obsession," has been one of the season's big hits. The extraordinary success of this work, subtitled "How it functions, where it comes from, and why it is a dead end," suggests that there is a substantial readership in France not only for Revel's robust refutation of the arguments prevalent in the French media (Republicans are "cowboys," Bush's "fundamentalism" is the same as Osama's, etc.), but for his vigorous defense of American institutions and foreign policy.

Where Ferhat Mehenni sees a Jacobin--or statist--streak in anti-Americanism, Revel sees also an evasion of responsibility. The conflicts between Israel and the Arab states, the misery of Africa, global warming, and the price of beef in Europe have all been blamed on the United States. Revel uses the comment by the Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo to underscore the absurdity of the blame-America-first-last-and-always position: "What are 20,000 dead in New York," asks the Italian literary genius, "compared with the millions killed by [American] speculators?"

This flight into unreason expresses, as the legal scholar Yves Roucaute points out, "the spirit of Munich hovering over France." It also represents the hedonistic, selfish spirit of the age, notes historian Pierre Rigoulot. The typical slogan of French "antiwar" marchers, observes Rigoulot, has been "Foutez-nous la paix," which of course means "F-- off," or, to put it more delicately, What do the Iraqi people matter to us?