You would think that commemorating September 11 would be a snap for our allies, the French. After all, it was on September 11, 1814, that the Americans were victorious over the British at the critical Battle of Plattsburg. The battle was the turning point of the War of 1812 — fought by the U.S. partly in protest against Great Britain’s nasty habit of kidnapping American sailors and pressing them into service in the Royal Navy, but also partly in defense of France, which was suffering under a British embargo. It was only the first time America went to war for France.
Surprisingly, the Battle of Plattsburg went unnoticed yesterday in the French press! Instead, a more recent September 11 event captured the front page of France’s most august broadsheet, Le Monde: The anniversary of the overthrow of the Chilean government of Marxist Salvadore Allende in a military coup backed by the CIA. In fact, the coup — and the American role in it — was the subject of a whole series of pieces in Le Monde leading up to 9/11 (the same in the Guardian, where an emotional special report was devoted to “the other September 11″).
Le Monde’s lead item — “Chile, 1973: The Other September 11″ — actually avoided overt Yank-bashing, leaving that to other pieces. But it’s hardly necessary. Every liberal in Europe already knows what hideous evil was wrought by the Great Satan 30 years ago in Santiago when the U.S. gave its support to the Chilean military. You can argue your Belleau Wood and your Normandy and your Marshall Plan all you want. On the great moral tally-sheet of the Left all of that stuff is easily trumped by American complicity in the overthrow of Allende.
America’s September 11? Just another day in the downward spiral of American prestige in the French press, where finer minds appreciate nuance and complexity far beyond the ken of your average Texas Republican. Two years ago, Le Monde famously headlined, “We Are All Americans.” This year’s headline is “Two Years Afterward.” (Perhaps it should have been “We Are All Chileans”.) The angle: George W. Bush is ridiculous for being “convinced that the civilized world is engaged in a new world war against a new totalitarianism” and for not paying attention to America’s “alliés traditionnels,” a term Le Monde uses without apparent irony, despite the fact that they mean France.
The Euro-left has a problem with September 11, because to express sympathy for America is not en emotion much in evidence in the European media these days. “Support” was for September 11, 2001. “Sympathy” was for September 11, 2002. This year, the prevailing sentiment is disdain. (An exception: Italy, where many editors front-paged a letter from the president of Italy to Bush expressing solidarity in the fight against terrorism. In Germany, most newspapers, even including the leftist Suddeutsche Zeitung passed on the chance to wax sardonic and made do with fairly straightforward accounts.) In France, most papers ran with the story of the bin Laden tapes or something about America’s failure to crush al Qaeda, topics far more comforting to those drunk on anti-Americanism.
In fact, for a nation like France, where make-believe victories are given to he who clings most tightly to the moral edge, the Allende coup is just one more thing for which the French should thank us. First, there was the Security Council controversy earlier this year, which couldn’t have come at a better time for King Jack of France. The U.S.’s plea for U.N. support provided a lofty hedge behind which the Chirac government was able to shield its dismal economic performance while it built support for some lame but controversial pension reforms.
Now, after a long, dismal August in which Le Monde reports as many as 12,000 Frenchmen died in a heat wave the size of Tucson because of a confluence of government mismanagement of health services, a deep love of the Kyoto Treaty, and a sweaty disdain for Yankee-style air conditioning — along with a propensity for every adult in France (including, apparently, most doctors) to pile into a Peugeot or Airbus and run away from responsibility for a month — we have given Chirac and his Bill Maher-like henchman, Dominique de Villepin, a chance to preen the moral feathers of France once more.
All it took was America’s most recent bizarre, grotesque return to the U.N. When Bush sent Powell back to the Security Council for some postwar assistance, it was Chirac and Villepin who got the benefit of a pleasant distraction from their real problems, including all those unclaimed bodies in the morgues of Paris. Having mastered the rhetoric of pomposity by denouncing America’s “logic of war” before the Iraq invasion, Villepin, according to Le Figaro, expressed his sorrow at America’s “logic of occupation,” while advancing France’s love for “the logic of sovereignty,” as reported by Liberation.
What about the logic of freon? If the U.S. lost 15,000 American soldiers in Baghdad in a month, I suspect there would have been a different set of headlines yesterday in Paris.
Another rationalist construct missing from all these French reports: the French logic of extortion. France settled with Libya years ago for the 1989 bombing of a UTA DC-10; a French judge awarded the families $33 million in 1999. The French then announced that as far as France was concerned, Libya had met its obligations and U.N. sanctions against the country should be lifted — despite ongoing efforts by the U.S. to hold the Libyans responsible for the 1988 destruction of a Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The PanAm families persisted and finally settled for $2.7 billion. France suddenly did an about-face. Villepin moved to veto any resolution easing restrictions against Libya — and thus blocking a payment of the PanAm settlement — unless the French got more money than they had settled for earlier. According to the IHT, fortunately for the PanAm families, Libya acquiesced.
Now for a pop quiz: When the latest agreement between France and Libya was reached, who said, “What matters to us is honor. We don’t care about money.” Was it Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi? Or France’s Dominique de Villepin? It was Qaddafi, believe it or not. But if you didn’t know the answer, this little item, from today’s Daily Telegraph, should confuse you completely.
In London, a parliamentary committee has reported that Andrew Gilligan and the BBC lied when they broadcast the allegation that the Blair government had “sexed up” its claims of Iraqi threats in an effort to convince Britons to go to war. The BBC had staked its reputation on the accuracy of that claim, yet somehow, in the fog of the British press, exemplified by this report in the Guardian, the committee’s findings have morphed from an obvious indictment of the BBC into yet another Blair blunder, with defense chief Geoff Hoon accused of being “potentially misleading” (as opposed to the BBC, which was actually and persistently misleading) and once again left hanging limply in the wind. Poor Hoon could moonlight as an American flag in Paris and get more respect.