Anybody who says George Bush and Colin Powell have caused strife and division on our troubled planet obviously missed the headline in Thursday’s Le Monde: “French-German couple reunited in Berlin.” Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder — that would be Chirac in the monsieur role, while Schroeder is the herr — were brought together to celebrate a kind of diplomatic remarriage, something the paper, in an excess of joie d’Oprah, called a “renewal of the bonds” that unite the happy pair.
This all happened on Thursday. Even as these things go, Chirac and Schroeder made a pretty odd-looking couple: there’s Jacques, with his happy-drunk grin and Gerhard, the German-next-door, with the grim smile of a nervous 12-stepper. Saturday, Tony Blair will call on the couple — and that should make for some pretty amusing moments. It’s always so awkward in those situations. Who do you compliment for the décor? Oh, well. Who knows what makes a happy marriage work? Some say you need good communication; others say it’s all about sex. My theory is all you need is Colin Powell and a lousy economy.
Certainly, the economy has caused Jacques and Gerhard to hold hands, cliffside. France and Germany are both struggling, running deficits that annually bludgeon into senselessness the EU’s budgetary agreements — something the two leaders claim is allowed under “certain circumstances,” like when you spend more money than you have. The German economy is so bad that, according to Die Welt, Germany is acting as a drag-chute on the entire eurozone. In comparison, the U.S. is sailing. “If Europeans want to see an economic recovery,” the paper quotes an IMF official, “they’d better turn on the TV.”
France, meanwhile, has several interesting problems at the moment, not all of them economic. First, there’s the aftermath of la canicule, the awful heat wave that killed more than 11,000 people. Astonishing accounts of the weak and the old suffering and dying in 100-degree hospital rooms, such as this one in La Provence, still appear almost daily. The health ministry has proposed, as a quick solution, to provide at least one air-conditioned public room in every hospital — and damn the Kyoto. There’s a massive and growing health-insurance deficit, one Le Monde calls “incredible.” And — quel chomage! — an unemployment rate racing toward 10 percent.
To try to stop his falling poll numbers, Chirac faced the nation in a speech stolen with a kiss from the lips of Dr. Pangloss. “Chirac recaptures the initiative after the doubts of summer,” cheered (warning: .pdf alert!) the dutiful Le Monde. But elsewhere, the response was less euphoric. In the pages of Nouvel Observateur</A>, Chirac was compared to Emile Coué, the pioneering champion of autosuggestion who told his patients to repeat the phrase “Every day, and in every way, I am becoming better and better” over and over until they thought it was true. Meanwhile, according to Liberation, the other members of the eurozone groaned in irritation.
So Chirac and Schroeder reunited in Berlin yesterday, surveyed their ruined economies — and decided to go shopping! The two men announced a $55 billion, ten-point growth program — described in English in the Daily Telegraph and itemized in the other language by TF1. The result will be speedier trains, a GPS system that duplicates the American one, faster Internet connections and, of course, environmental programs galore and expenditures to help meet the requirements of the Kyoto treaty. The money for all this will be provided by the EIB, so it won’t look on the books like the added debt it obviously is. The rest of the eurozone will be given empty bowls and invited to help bail so the crew of two can stay afloat.
But that’s not all. Enter Colin Powell, dropping in like a soda bottle sent down from the gods, with Washington’s wacky request for U.N. help in Iraq. Nothing throws Europeans into each others’ laps faster than an American climbdown. A few minutes after Powell’s request, France reached not very deep into its own experience and suggested the U.S. immediately surrender — in this case, by giving Iraq to the U.N. Heading into the Thursday meeting with Chirac, Schroeder seemed uncertain of how to react. The German media — see, for example, this report on the ARD website — has made much of his impending visit to the U.S. next week to meet, at last, with Bush, who seems determined to win over all those Europhiles sitting on fences and listening to NPR in marginal congressional districts. Put that together with all the teachers’ union votes he’ll get by swamping the Department of Education with money and reelection’s practically a given.
For a second, it was hoped the Germans might fall out of love with the French. Indeed, it appeared to some optimistic journalists — such as these (subscribers only) at the Wall Street Journal — that Schroeder would make a significant move to help the U.S.: “Schroeder Is Ready to Help The U.S. Rebuild Iraq Now” is how the story ran. But the German press, including the Suddeutsche Zeitung, had a more accurate and less-enthusiastic take. And sure enough, by the time Thursday’s lovefest was over, all the U.S. stood to gain was some vocational training of would-be Iraqi meter maids in Germany and a sense that Schroeder was willing to wait longer than a month or two for the U.S. to hand Iraq over to the U.N. Schroeder also promised that he would be willing to gain a few lucrative business deals in Baghdad, if anybody insists, and, in a New York Times op-ed seriously free of any apparent significance or specificity, he held out a limp, cold hand to his American friends. But when he returns to Germany, he’ll poll the crowd and decide where his (not Germany’s) interests lie. With virulent anti-Americanism rampant in Germany, thanks in great part to Schroeder’s government’s encouragement, I suspect he’ll be back in Jacques’s lap by month’s end.
As for France, this is war, as even Thomas Friedman notes in the IHT. But it’s an odd one, since it’s being waged strictly to support poll numbers, not to advance a plausible cause — unless you define creating polar animosity between Europe and the U.S. as a “cause.” Both men have learned from long experience that Bush is their friend because he’s their enemy. Schroeder has a job because he bashed Bush. These days, Chirac is especially reliant on Bush-beating to stay on top. In fact, if Bush can learn anything from the happy Euro-couple, it’s that he could probably pump his own poll numbers about now if he would just haul off and give himself a good bash.
Part of Darkness: Once, when I was younger and dumber, I flew on a cargo plane over the civil war in Angola. It was a flight to deliver some provisions to the Cuban army who was helping the Angolan government hold onto a provincial town which had been surrounded by UNITA forces. To get there, you flew above the clouds at 20,000 feet or so until you got directly over the airport, then you did a dizzying descent in a very tight corkscrew approach. If you flew too wide, UNITA would shoot you. When we landed and started tossing off the groceries, I mentioned to somebody that the place must be kind of tense. “Oh no,” he said. “Here, everything is peaceful.” Then he pointed at some trees. “But over there, it’s terrible.”
That’s the way the French brought peace to Bunia, a town in a particularly war-ravaged corner of the Congo. More than 50,000 have died and half a million are homeless there. The French arrived, nailed down the city limits and kept the townsfolk from shooting each other, mostly, then declared everything to be peaceful. Meanwhile, down the road out of town, slaughters proceeded apace. A few weeks ago, the French handed over Bunia to a Euro-run operation, called “Artemis,” under the U.N., sort of the way they’d like to do in Iraq, I guess. And, of course, now the war’s gone downtown again, according to this report in Liberation and this hopeful one in Jeune Afrique. Bottom line: You’re no longer safe in Bunia — but you still can’t leave town to escape. Things are even worse in the Ivory Coast, the scene of France’s other recent adventure in African nation-saving, according to this report — “The Joke of Peace in the Ivory Coast” — by the AFP.
“We goofed.” Those two little words, uttered by the BBC early in its latest escapade in biased journalism — falsely claiming the Blair government “sexed up” its intelligence reports during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion — would have saved a lot of time, a lot of money, and at least one life. Instead, we have the BBC’s bloated buddy, Andrew Gilligan, admitting, in the Telegraph, what everybody knew: that he committed lousy journalism, and the Labor Government promising, in the Guardian, that the world’s most arrogant media institution (pace, New York Times) was going to become accountable at long, long last. Maybe the empty suits mismanaging the Corporation will even be fired. That would be good. Next Thursday, the Hugely Expensive Commission charged with investigating the suicide of a Gilligan source, will conclude its wildly disproportionate inquiry. It will be the most expensive correction notice ever published.
— Denis Boyles, a freelance journalist, is an NRO contributor.