MODERN FRANCE'S love affair with Iraq was fleetingly foreshadowed in the year 803, when Harun ar-Rashid, legendary Abbassid caliph of Baghdad, sent an embassy to the equally famous emperor Charlemagne, ruler of the Franks. It seemed a promising beginning: The caliph's gifts to the emperor included unbreakable Damascene swords, a clepsydra, and an elephant. Nevertheless, many centuries would pass before the two countries came into regular contact. In the meantime, the Mongol invaders of the 13th century would burn Iraq's ancient cities, ruin the irrigation system along the Tigris and Euphrates, and put 90 percent of its people to the sword. Even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the French were active in many Arab lands--the Maghreb, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon--they stayed out of Iraq, an Ottoman province and preserve of the Germans until 1917, when it fell into the hands of the British as a nominally independent Hashemite monarchy. Only after the Iraqi republican revolution of 1958, the most brutal and bloody coup ever carried out in an Arab country, did the relationship change. The Soviet Union replaced Britain as the most influential foreign power in Baghdad, and France came close behind it.

Two men saw to this. The first was President Charles de Gaulle. Leader of the Resistance during World War II, General de Gaulle had made a political comeback in 1958 and set up the Fifth Republic, dedicated to the rebirth of France as a great power. That entailed modernizing the economy at home and challenging the postwar division of the world between the superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union--in particular, challenging the United States as the paramount Western power.

One way to advance both goals was to support Third World nationalism. In less than four years, de Gaulle transformed the old colonial empire in Africa into a loose constellation of client-states, making possible new links with other countries, notably in the Arab world. To a Conservative member of the National Assembly who lamented the transfer of the oil-rich Sahara to independent Algeria in 1962, de Gaulle retorted: "Don't you see we have traded Grandpa's empire for the much broader empire of the future, and the limited oil of the Sahara for the much more plentiful oil of Arabia?"

There was some logic to this, except that the richest Arab or Islamic oil countries--from Libya to Saudi Arabia to Iran, monarchies all--remained very much under Anglo-Saxon influence. Iraq, however, seemed to present an opportunity. The revolutionary regime had started to expropriate the assets of the former colonial oil company, the largely Anglo-American Iraq Petroleum Company. Could Iraq be brought into the French orbit? De Gaulle was confident that even the Americans would not object, eager as they were to prevent a Soviet takeover. But then, who was in charge in Baghdad? The new regime was ridden with coups and intrigues. Kassem, the first republican leader, was overthrown and put to death in 1963. There was a succession of further nationalist rulers, either followers of Nasser or supporters of the more dogmatic Baath party--hardly the strong and stable leadership that France would need to deal with.

THE MAN WHO CAME to de Gaulle's aid at this juncture was the historian and military expert Jacques Benoist-Méchin. A most unlikely go-between, Benoist-Méchin was ostensibly de Gaulle's very opposite. During World War II, he had not merely sided with Marshall Philippe Pétain's Vichy régime over de Gaulle's Free French, but had explicitly supported Hitler's New Order in Europe. He would even report in his "Memoirs" that he had warned Hitler, in the course of an interview in Berlin in 1942, about some of his strategic decisions; and commented that the Fuhrer had "unfortunately" not heeded his advice. De Gaulle, however, was not one to classify people by conventional criteria. Above all, he admired Benoist-Méchin's great "History of the German Army Since the Armistice," first published in 1938, which explained how the Reichswehr, the Weimar Republic's rump-army, had been turned into an elite corps paving the way for Hitler's Wehrmacht. In fact, de Gaulle's first order, upon taking over the Ministry of War as head of the National Liberation Government of France in 1944, had been to have the book reissued and distributed to the officers of the resurrected French army. As for its author, de Gaulle could not spare him some measure of punishment, but made sure he would survive. Benoist-Méchin was sentenced to death for treason by France's High Court of Justice in June 1947, only to be reprieved almost at once and sent back to his studies.

Benoist-Méchin became as strong a supporter of de Gaulle's anti-Anglo-Saxon policies as he had been of Pétain's. And he knew the Middle East almost as well as he knew Germany. He had written the first--and to this day, the best--biographies of Mustafa Kemal and Ibn Saud ever published in French, and was a confidant of most Arab leaders, from King Hassan II of Morocco to Nasser. But his ties with Iraq were even stronger. In September 1941, while serving as a senior assistant to the vice president of the Vichy government, he had engineered a bilateral agreement allowing Germany to transfer weapons through the then French-controlled territory of Syria to Rashid Ali, the pro-Axis Iraqi leader who had just toppled the pro-British regent, Abdullilah, and his prime minister, Nuri Said. The German weapons transfer did not materialize, as a month later, the Free French wrested Syria from the Vichy French, and the British restored the regent in Iraq. But Rashid Ali's people never forgot how helpful Benoist-Méchin had been prepared to be. Many of them were sacked, but those who managed to stay in the Iraqi armed forces were active in the 1958 revolution. They soon got in touch with their old friend, who in turn introduced them to the appropriate people at the Quai d'Orsay, the French Foreign Office. It was then that de Gaulle summoned Benoist-Méchin himself to the Elysée Palace. "Iraq really is the key to your Arab policy," the former Vichy official would recall telling the president. "Its oil reserves are second only to Saudi Arabia's. And the most reliable people in Iraq are the Baathists."

DE GAULLE RESIGNED IN 1969, not long after Saddam Hussein, the cleverest and most ruthless of all the Baathists, came to power. Saddam was to bring his country stability, albeit by totalitarian means. And he had a soft spot for France. His uncle and surrogate father, Khairallah Tulfah, had been involved in the Rashid Ali coup. The contacts initiated by Benoist-Méchin eventually led to full-fledged accords negotiated under de Gaulle's successor, Georges Pompidou. It fell to Jacques Chirac--one of Pompidou's most trusted assistants and ministers until 1974; then, under Pompidou's successor, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, prime minister of France from 1974 to 1976--to formalize these agreements in treaties and contracts.

Of course, it would be absurd to claim that Gaullist France had deliberately armed Iraq, much less provided it with weapons of mass destruction. France was simply advancing its national interests. Once the Iraqis promised not to build nuclear weapons, it wasn't up to Paris to determine whether or not they were secretly taking steps to turn the Osirak civilian nuclear reactor into a military facility. Earlier French governments had not been fussy about how the Israelis were using their French-built reactor at Dimona, in the Negev desert. And the same Gaullist or post-Gaullist governments that negotiated with Saddam Hussein's Iraq were engaged in parallel talks and accords, even over nuclear facilities, with the shah's Iran, Iraq's rival for hegemony in the Persian Gulf. As for Chirac himself, he was not responsible for the most consequential step taken by France regarding Iraq in nuclear matters: the decision to provide Iraq enriched plutonium. That decision was made by his successor as prime minister, Raymond Barre. In the end, only one of the six planned shipments was carried out.

In 1981, the Israelis felt sufficiently threatened by Iraq to destroy the Osirak reactor in one of the most daring airborne raids in history. By then, the shah had been replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Republic of Iran, and Saddam Hussein had invaded this new neighbor. The French, who had just elected a Socialist president, François Mitterrand, for the first time in 27 years, wondered whether they should continue the relationship with Iraq. One reason not to was that Saddam was an unreliable customer. Most French companies involved with Iraq were actually getting paid by Coface, the French government agency that backs export contracts. Still, there was the prospect that Iraq might win the war with Iran and, with its enormous oil resources, become the dominant power in the Middle East. Moreover, solidarity with Baghdad, cemented by the high-profile cooperation and commercial contracts of the 1970s, had become quite popular with the French public. Gaullists saw it as part of France's sacrosanct "Arab policy," a legacy from the general, as well as a personal achievement of Chirac. The Communists, still a significant political force in the 1980s, were supportive of the generally pro-Soviet Iraqi regime. The anti-American left, a rising force within the Socialist party, saw Saddam as an "anti-imperialist leader" and even as a "secularist bulwark" against Shiite fundamentalism. The Catholic church had contacts of its own with Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's Christian foreign minister. Anti-Semites and anti-Zionists of all stripes, including latter-day Vichy loyalists, were enthusiastic, too. Mitterrand eventually agreed to resume and even upgrade French cooperation with Iraq, both supplying weapons and entering into industrial partnerships. By 1989, when Saddam Hussein finally defeated Khomeini, about $10 billion worth of French arms had been delivered to Iraq, of which less than $5 billion had been paid for. And Iraq-related orders accounted for about half of all French arms production.

Saddam's invasion of Kuwait a year later only rekindled the debate. Was Iraq to be fought--or supported? A significant part of French opinion, from the hard left to the far right, stood by Iraq. Its champion, the Socialist defense minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, resigned from the cabinet rather than condone military intervention. An even larger share of the public was inclined to neutrality. Mitterrand, however, joined the American-led international coalition for the liberation of Kuwait (not without engaging in last-minute negotiations with Baghdad), as well as the smaller coalition that later forced Iraqi air forces out of Kurdistan and southern Iraq. He did this out of sheer realpolitik. It was obvious to him that Iraq was no match for the United States and that the old Gaullist strategy made no sense now that the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union was disintegrating. It no longer served the national interest of France to challenge America, but to be among the winners and so have a say in the final settlement, whatever it might be.

NEARLY A DOZEN YEARS LATER, little has changed in this regard. For all its anti-American rhetoric, France actively supported U.S. military endeavors all around the globe throughout the 1990s, be it in Bosnia, in Kosovo, or in Afghanistan. The rationale is still to be seen as a peer of the one and only superpower--and incidentally to keep in touch with the superpower's ever-improving military technology and training. Regarding Iraq, France now confronts an ironic situation: Iraq was crushed in 1991, as Mitterrand foresaw it would be, but George Bush and then Bill Clinton allowed Saddam to survive. The only sensible response for the French was to keep their distance. Now that a new American president, George W. Bush, seems serious about getting rid of the Baathist dictatorship, things may change again. France, too, has a new president--the very Jacques Chirac who helped Pompidou and Giscard cement the Iraqi-French relationship in the 1970s. French public opinion is arguably more pro-Iraq or neutralist than ever, if only because of France's growing Islamic population. But Chirac's own position is more subtle. In recent months, he has repeatedly expressed concern about a "preventive war" against Iraq not "authorized" by the United Nations or the world community. Still, unlike the neutralist German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, he has not ruled out war as such. That would be to step onto the sidelines, and France must be a great power at any cost.

The author of several books on world affairs, Michel Gurfinkiel is the editor in chief of Valeurs Actuelles, a Paris-based journal.

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