Like the Cheshire cat that leaves behind a grin when it disappears, what is known as France’s Arab policy (Politique Arabe de France or PAF) has had a way of putting in periodical appearances during the past three decades.
PAF’s latest appearance came in the shape of the campaign that President Jacques Chirac began to wage from May 2003 to prevent or, at least, delay as long as possible, the overthrow of the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.
The French leader’s behavior, seen as “reckless” by some of his political advisers, is not motivated by Chirac’s old friendship with the Iraqi leader, dating back to 1975.
A documentary broadcast by FR3 television in Paris this month narrates the Chirac-Saddam personal friendship that began 28 years ago.
But it misses the point: Chirac sought Saddam’s friendship not out of personal sympathy but in the framework of a political vision. That vision is part of the legacy left by the late General Charles De Gaulle who believed that France should counterbalance the German weight in Europe, and the Anglo-American axis across the Atlantic, with a Mediterranean profondeur (depth) that , in practice, means a special relationship with the Arab states of North Africa and the Middle East.
Chirac established himself as a promoter of PAF during his first term as prime minister (1974-76) during which he visited 11 Arab capitals and played host to 14 Arab heads, setting a record. He also signed contracts worth billions of dollars with various Arab states, including one that gave Iraq its first nuclear center, Osirak that launched Saddam’s nuclear-weapons program.
Chirac’s diplomatic guerrilla tactics during the Iraq crisis at the United Nations made him something of a hero for the Baathist ruling elite in Baghdad. The newspaper Babel, owned by Saddam Hussein’s son Uday, gave Chirac the coveted title of “Great Combatant” (Al-Mujahid al-Akbar). Chirac also received an enthusiastic reception from the crowds in Algiers during a state visit in March 2003.
As already noted, PAF was initially introduced by De Gaulle in 1967 after the June war in which Israel defeated the Arab states and ended up in control of vast chunks of Arab territory including East Jerusalem.
In 1967 De Gaulle, no longer hamstrung by the Algerian war, and having scaled down the special relationship with Israel, was in a position to launch PAF with panache.
PAF started as a series of diplomatic moves and political declarations, like the one describing the Jews as un peuple sur de lui et dominateur (a people sure of itself and domineering), that some critics saw as anti-Semitic.
The general also imposed an embargo on the sale of French arms to all belligerents in the Middle East. Since there were no Arab states among the customers of the French armament industry at the time, the ban concerned only Israel which at the time depended on French hardware.
De Gaulle might not have realized it at the time but his launching of PAF accelerated of the ” Americanization” of Israel. Conscious that, without a big power ally, its existence could be in danger, Israel was almost obliged to turn to the United States in search of the same kind of “special relationship” that France was now terminating.
A certain resentment of the United States, in the context of a complex love-hate relationship, has always affected a section of the French ruling establishment.
Gaullism sought to give expression to that resentment in a number of ways, including withdrawal from the military command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1966.
Pseudo-ideological reasons may have also contributed to the shaping of PAF and Gaullist foreign policy. Gaullism adopted a nationalistic discourse to combat political rivals. The French Communist party (PCF) was branded the “party of Moscow” while the Socialists were presented as “Atlanticists”
PAF was strengthened by the Gaullists’ habit of seeing politics in terms of the “strongman” or l’homme providential. This is part of the so-called bonapartiste heritage of Gaullism, which emphasizes the nation, rejects class conflict, and presents an authoritarian approach to politics. A profoundly volontariste doctrine, Gaullism exaggerates the ability of the government, and its leader in particular, to set the course of history. Saddam Hussein more than fits the role of “providential man.”
One aim of PAF was, one must assume, the securing of a greater share for French goods in the Arab markets. But that has not happened. In most Arab countries France has been distanced as a trading partner by Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. In a sense PAF may have actually harmed French business prospects. There is a feeling in many Arab countries that doing business with France is always political rather than commercial, and that one must purchase French goods and services not because they are attractive but as part of a pay-off for French political support.
Partly because of PAF, French businessmen refuse to do their marketing work in the region, constantly looking to the government to help them secure contracts. The fact that the French state owns many large corporations further emphasizes the confusion between commerce and diplomacy.
The tangled web of commerce and politics represented by PAF is believed, rightly or wrongly, to include the financing of various political parties and groups in France.
The involvement of shady middlemen in implementing aspects of PAF has contributed to the tarnishing of France’s image in the Middle East as a state based on the rule of law. Successive French administrations have used unorthodox methods, and even broken the law, to curry favor for this or that “strongman.”
In 1983 France took at least three Super-Etandard heavy bombers out of its air force, repainted them in Iraqi colors, and sent them on bombing raids against Iranian oil installations as a show of goodwill to Saddam. The move was never debated in the cabinet or in the parliament.
Chirac had to abandon PAF when his party lost control of the parliament in the 1997 elections. The period of “cohabitation” with a Socialist prime minister left Chirac with few opportunities to shape foreign policy.
Having won back a majority in the parliament in 2002, Chirac lost no time to regain control of foreign policy, and appointed his former bureau chief Dominique de Villepin, an amateur poet, as foreign minister.
Within weeks, PAF was up and running again. It announced its revival not only via the new pro-Saddam policy but also with a series of high-level visits, new contracts, and aid packages.
PAF’s bias in favor of authoritarian regimes is partly due to the fact that France itself has had a state-dominated economic system since the war. The faster France liberalizes its economy the better would be its chances of abandoning the PAF.
As far as oil is concerned, PAF’s geopolitical myopia has prevented France from paying the necessary attention to the new sources of energy opened up in the Gulf of Guinea, the Americas, Transcaucasia, Central Asia, and Kazakhstan.
Instead, French strategists have focused on a trio of pariah nations — Libya, Iraq, and Iran — all of which have uncertain political futures.
The latest eruption of PAF may prove costly for France. A debate on PAF may become unavoidable.
Such a debate would have to start with a critical assessment of the assumption that there is a single, monolithic Arab entity with which France could maintain and develop relations. A closer examination of realities would prove that “grand design” of PAF is based on a chimera.
The diversity of the countries grouped together under the label of “the Arab world” renders PAF, or any similar attempt at dealing with them on the basis of a “grand design,” inoperative.
It is, perhaps, time to bury PAF so that France could reorganize its relations with the countries concerned on the basis of pragmatic realities and interests.