AS FRANCE'S political leaders feign high-mindedness in their opposition to waging war in Iraq, could it be that a little-publicized threat of blackmail--issued by none other than Saddam Hussein a year after France sided with the United States in the first Gulf War--weighs ever so slightly in the back of their minds?
The threat by the Iraqi leader, published here for the first time in English, was reported in a 1992 French book, now out of print, titled "Notre Allié Saddam" (Our Ally Saddam). Here's what Saddam said:
As for financiers, industrialists and above all those responsible for military industry, the question must be put to French politicians: Who did not benefit from these business contracts and relationships with Iraq? . . . With respect to the politicians, one need only refer back to the declarations of all the political parties of France, Right and Left. All were happy to brag about their friendship with Iraq and to refer to common interests. From Mr. Chirac [now the center-right president] to Mr. Chevenement [the socialist former defense minister] . . . politicians and economic leaders were in open competition to spend time with us and flatter us. We have now grasped the reality of the situation [of France's support for the 1991 Gulf War, a betrayal in Saddam's eyes]. If the trickery continues, we will be forced to unmask them, all of them, before the French public.
Author-journalists Claude Angeli and Stéphanie Mesnier had prompted this response by asking Saddam about financial ties between his regime and French industrialists and politicians, specifically inquiring: "Has Iraq financially supported French politicians and political parties?"
It's a query that has come up periodically in the French press, and been hotly denied by French politicians. Reporters such as Angeli, and others at newspapers such as Le Monde, Libération, and La Tribune, have documented tangential links, but are still searching for a smoking gun. And, in an outcome that has become a traditional feature of French corruption investigations--such as the 1998 parliamentary inquiry into the role of French oil companies in the country's foreign policy, as well as a 2001 judicial inquiry into political-party financing--few whistle-blowers have turned up, let alone paper trails.
What is known is this: French businesses, led by the oil conglomerates, established warm and profitable relationships with Iraq's Baathist regime dating back to the 1970s, when Iraq ditched Anglo-American companies and nationalized its oil industry. Again, after the 1991 Gulf War, French companies moved aggressively into the business channels opened up by the U.N.'s oil-for-food deal with Iraq. France's defense industry has also profited from sales to Iraq. What's the difference between this and, say, past U.S. commercial ties to Baghdad? The socialist economic model that links both France and Iraq: As is widely documented, few business deals between the state-controlled conglomerates are made without heavy massaging by French politicians.
So, if there's something to the line of questioning about financial support from Baghdad to Paris--and decades of cozy relations among leading politicians certainly suggests it's worth finding out--then what could be worse for France's top political dogs than to be outed by Saddam himself?
He has threatened to expose all ties if they should betray him by supporting war again. Lo and behold, France's leaders continue to oppose disarming Saddam by force, even as their stance meets criticism from their own backbenchers and harms France's relations with its European neighbors.
The trouble with this appeasement strategy--if indeed the French pols are hiding something--is that they'll probably get caught anyway. After Saddam is ousted from Baghdad, the dissidents who take power are sure to open up the country's archives, East Germany-style, and expose any complicity and impropriety that oiled the channels between France and the Iraqi ancien régime.
Better for the French ruling class to come clean now. That's the only way it can salvage any dignity at all.
Melana Zyla Vickers is a columnist at TechCentralStation.com and a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum.
Flashback: Read Michel Gurfinkiel's A Beautiful Friendship: What France sees in Iraq from the Oct. 28, 2003 issue.