For a couple of days there, the European press nearly succumbed to the epidemic of chronic systemic apoplexy which swept the continent after Rummy asked the Syrians to please refrain from making chemical weapons and to stop offering tourist visas to wayward Iraqi generals. Things are better in England and Germany, now that the Valium has kicked in.
But in the French press, everything about Washington’s unkind words is just too horrible. The pain and suffering the Bush administration has caused the Baathist regime in Damascus is seen as inexcusable. Le Monde, in an outraged editorial today, asks why the Americans act so American. After all, both Syria and Iraq are Baathist fascists, so, according to the paper, it’s only “logical that Iraqi Baathists took refuge” next door with Syrian Baathists. And it’s not like Syria has done anything wrong: “Having refused to sign anything, Syria, unlike Iraq…is free to develop weapons of mass destruction…. So why now the threats?” There are two explanations for this, says Le Monde. Either it’s part of a regional American plan to “destabilize the most radical regimes” by putting them on notice that WMDs and harboring terrorists are no longer acceptable policies. Or — and I think this may be the explanation Le Monde is favoring — “the White House is drunk on military strength.” However, Le Monde saves its most scathing criticism for the part where it accuses the U.S. of putting its interests ahead of the interests of others — and therefore behaving like the French.
Most of us knew a war in Syria wasn’t really the plan. But if you have a big, victorious army sitting around, you might as well use it as a way of leveraging a little serious attention, no? Non! The reaction of the French, the Germans, and the Left-wing Brits shows why Europeans can’t play poker, and instead prefer games of pure chance, like roulette and driving in Italy. The quintessentially American skill of turning a card and making a bluff is just lost on them. Anybody could play a busted flush and make a French poker player fold. (Insert French surrender joke here.) For Le Figaro even sending Dom de Villepin, the French minister of strangeness (a literal translation, sort of), to Syria was “playing a risky game.” Fortunately, the paper says, the Americans don’t seem to care any more what de Villepin does or says, while the Syrians may have not taken him very seriously, either. As the paper points out, the Syrians have to ask themselves, “If Washington leans on [us], what will France be able to do to help? Why would France be more effective in a Syrian crisis than in the Iraqi crisis?”
The Times explains how the game is played to calmer readers: “The Assad regime will try to give the minimum to ensure its survival, as it has always done. But, unlike Saddam’s, it also knows when not to believe its own slogans. Using diplomatic, political and economic pressure while keeping the military option open, the US-led coalition should ask for the maximum. That includes support for the growing reform movement in Syria itself, a movement that many say is secretly endorsed by President Assad against the old guard.”
Aside from wars on Syrians, the other preoccupation of the French press today is determining how much their anti-Americanism is going to cost them. Liberation offers a trio of pieces reporting the effects of the American boycott of all things made in France. In a main piece, the paper reports that poll numbers show Americans are starting to feel about the French the way the French have always felt about Americans — and, more importantly, how that translates to a serious decline in, among other things, wine exports to the U.S., said to be worth some $1 billion a year. There’s also an amusing Q&A with American economist and boycott-backer Irwin Stelzer of the Hudson Institute. Judging by the questions, the paper clearly thinks Dr. Stelzer is a lunatic: “You have written that ‘English cheeses are good substitutes for French cheeses.’ Are you serious?” A third piece looks at the limits of the boycott, noting a deal made by Rupert Murdoch with Thomson, a French company — despite the fact that Murdoch’s Fox News employs “motormouths” (“animateurs vedettes“!) like Bill O’Reilly, who has said nasty things about the denizens of Fromageville.
The war in Iraq is over. That’s semi-official, I think. The media here will continue to cover events there, and elsewhere, with relish, especially when what happens next reflects poorly on America. Mercifully, these daily reports will cease, but I will continue to provide a weekly digest of the European press until the management decides to take back this soapbox they have so kindly lent me.
— Denis Boyles is a journalist based in Europe.