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?
This is precisely the attitude rejected by the philosopher André Glucksmann, a former leftist whose anti-communism had a wide influence in intellectual circles in the 1980s. With two comrades-in-arms, the writer Pascal Bruckner and the filmmaker Romain Goupil, Glucksmann signed an op-ed in Le Monde on March 10. It recalls that in 1991 the three called for European military intervention in the former Yugoslavia and were met with derision. "The pacifists claimed intervention would bring on a world war. Yet eight years and 200,000 victims later, it was indeed armed intervention by NATO that saved Kosovo and brought Milosevic to trial at The Hague."
Glucksmann and company note that "antiwar" marchers in Europe demonize George Bush but forget that Saddam is a disciple of Stalin and the murderer of his own people. In this regard, as Rigoulot writes, the "pro-Americans" are the true progressives since they say the moral obligation to rescue the Iraqi people trumps the claim by Chirac and others that national sovereignty must be respected no matter how it is exercised.
A student of the sorry record of French intellectuals vis à vis the Nazi and Communist movements of the past century, Rigoulot--who happens also to be an authority on Korea and takes a dim view of the North--believes that his contemporaries could be making another monumental error in their assessment of the latest totalitarian threat to liberal democracy.
Less pessimistic, the essayist and news commentator Michel Gurfinkiel believes Lellouche has far more support among right-wing members of parliament than meets the eye. Even on the left, he notes, there are those, like former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who are appalled by the unconditional backing Chirac is receiving from the Socialists and the smaller left-wing parties. Another popular figure of the moderate left, Bernard Kouchner, founder of Doctors Without Borders and a former U.N. commissioner in Kosovo, supports intervention in Iraq to remove Saddam, but he is working at Harvard this year and thus is not a full participant in the intra-French debate.
But positions and principles are worth little if they aren't publicly espoused and made to enter the shared consciousness. This too is an old French story.
In 1777 a very young man sailed across the Atlantic, determined to place himself at the service of the great fight for freedom that George Washington--soon to become his mentor and best friend--was leading. This young man was Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, the marquis de Lafayette.
It is worth remembering that, except during the brief period of constitutional monarchy from 1789 to 1791, Lafayette was a prophet without honor in his own country. He opposed Napoleon's despotism, and, despite his contributions to the feeble progress toward democracy in France during the 1830s, he is today a mostly forgotten figure. This comes as a surprise and a disappointment to Americans, who are familiar with the mutual admiration of Washington and Lafayette. They should appreciate the more his political descendants, who are staying on the job under difficult circumstances.
Roger Kaplan is the author of "Conservative Socialism," about contemporary France, recently published by Transaction.