Politics & Policy

Old Habits

The game France is playing.

How long can one milk a cow? This is the question that France’s President Jacques Chirac will have to answer within the next few days. The cow in question is Gaullism, a pseudo-ideology that has marked French politics since the late 1950s.

Domestically, Gaullism is one version of the corporatist ideologies popular in the last century. These ideologies are based on the myth of a nation that transcends class and other boundaries. The myth is embodied in a charismatic strongman. The late General Charles De Gaulle, the father of Gaullism, often echoed Louis XIV’s notorious dictum: “I am the state!”

De Gaulle was a good face of political corporatism; more malevolent ideologies would be lead by Franco, Salazar, Peron, and Mussolini. In foreign-policy terms, Gaullism means a mixture of feigned grandeur, a homeopathic dose of anti-Americanism, sympathy for other regimes built around a “strongman,” and a great deal of posturing.

For Gaullist foreign policy the way things look is more important than the way things are.

When the Algerian war of independence started in the mid-1950s it was clear that the Cold War rivalry between the West and the USSR was the real subtext of the conflict. The Soviet bloc and its Arab allies supported the Algerian uprising against France in order to weaken the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

De Gaulle, who seized power in a coup in May 1958, understood this and worked hard to bring the Algerian war to an end. He succeeded in 1962. That, in turn, enabled him to withdraw from the military section of NATO while remaining a member of the treaty.

The move, meaningless in practical terms, helped strengthen the myth of Gaullism as a “third way” between the rival Soviet and American “hegemonies.”

De Gaulle has often been accused of harboring anti-American sentiments. But his actual record does not support that charge. Whenever it came to the brass tacks De Gaulle was firmly on the side of the United States. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis for example, De Gaulle informed President John Kennedy that France would be one hundred percent on the side of the U.S. in a third world war. De Gaulle’s support for the U.S. was also consistent through the Vietnam War (that, incidentally, the Americans had inherited from the French).

The Gaullist game was played by President Francois Mitterrand, the socialist politician who led France for 14 years (1981-1995). Missing no opportunity for making some anti-American gesticulations, Mitterrand always ended up firmly on the side of Washington on all major issues of international existence. In the early 1980s he acted as Washington’s point man in the campaign to persuade the Europeans to accept the installation of American long-range missiles in Germany and the Benelux countries. It was also in close consultations with the U.S. that Mitterrand planned and intelligently executed the destruction of the French Communist Party.

Mitterrand also played the Gaullist game in the first Gulf War against Saddam. He kept sending emissaries and messages to Baghdad and came out with half a dozen formulae to prevent war, even to the point of letting Iraq annex part of coastal Kuwait.

But when it became clear that the U.S. was determined to throw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait by force, Mitterrand changed course and sent the French army into battle under American command. (To do so he had to force his pro-Saddam defense minister Jean-Pierre Chevenment to resign.)

That episode demonstrated not only the limits of Gaullism but also its ultimate irrelevance in the post-Cold War world.

France paid heavily for its Gaullist gesticulations in 1990-91.

French businesses ended up with crumbs in the lucrative regional reconstruction market that followed the liberation of Kuwait. France was also excluded from the Madrid Peace conference of 1992. The Arabs ended up with a deep distrust of French motives and methods while the United States clearly identified the United Kingdom as its sole sure-fire ally in Europe.

Chirac’s first opportunity for his own Gaullist gesticulation as president came in 2001 over the war in Afghanistan. He played the usual Gaullian “yes-but” game in the hope that either the war against the Taliban will not happen or that the U.S. will become bogged down in a conflict lasting years.

But when it became clear that the Taliban would run away without fighting, and that the U.S. was heading for a complete victory in Afghanistan, Chirac performed a Mitterrandian U-turn and dispatched ships, planes, and troops to the area. They arrived when the war had practically ended. The Americans said merci beaucoup, but made sure that France was excluded from decisions concerning the future of Afghanistan and Central Asia.

It is a mystery why Chirac would want to play a game that can only harm France’s long-term interests in the Middle East.

Last week Chirac’s Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin openly threatened to use the French veto to prevent a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein.

The French insist that all they want is a delay of a few months after the council has received and debated a report from the U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq. That means postponing war until climatic conditions, especially high temperatures, render fighting far more difficult for any coalition led by the U.S.

Chirac’s choices are narrowing by the day. Soon he will have to choose between George W Bush and Saddam Hussein.

He could come out with a clear “no” to a war against Iraq, just as Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder has done, thus winning the esteem of the antiwar movement. The price would be the exclusion of France from shaping the future of Iraq and the new political architecture of the Middle East.

On the other hand, Chirac could help the U.S. obtain the green light of the Security Council, thus keeping the inevitable war under some form of international control. The U.N., and not the U.S., would then appoint the transition government in Baghdad, giving France a say in future developments in Iraq and the region as a whole.

The worst option for Chirac would be to continue his anti-American gesticulations until the 11th hour, and then rush to seek a side chair at the high table. If he were to do so, Chirac would show that while he roars like De Gaulle he has the heart of Rene Coty, the ineffectual politician who acted as France’s president in the 1950s.