EDITOR’S NOTE: Before 9/11, 77 percent of the American public held a favorable view of France and only 17 percent held an unfavorable one. On the eve of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, as French fries became “freedom fries,” only 34 percent of Americans saw France in a positive light and 64 percent viewed it negatively. At the center of this conflagration was French president Jacques Chirac.
Here’s an exclusive excerpt from the new book by NR’s John J. Miller and his co-author Mark Molesky, Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France. (For more information on the authors and their book, plus daily commentary on French politics and history, visit their website here.)
Born in Paris in 1932, Jacques Chirac went to good schools and was once described by a history teacher as having “a lively and curious mind but more spontaneous than reflective.” After a youthful flirtation with Communism, he thought about becoming a writer but wound up volunteering for military service in Algeria and falling under the spell of Gaullist chauvinism. In the 1960s, he threw himself into politics and won a seat in the National Assembly as a member of de Gaulle’s faction (defeating, coincidentally, Mitterand’s brother). He rose in the party ranks, became the minister of agriculture, and then, in 1974, prime minister. Fiercely ambitious, Chirac wanted nothing less than to inherit the Gaullist mantle as French president–though he would have to wait two decades to achieve this goal.
One of the most significant developments in Chirac’s political career was the close personal bond he formed in the 1970s with an ambitious Iraqi official. Vice President Saddam Hussein had come to France during those years to shake hands and sign oil contracts–and few were as keen to accommodate him as Chirac. Over several years, the two men met frequently in Baghdad and Paris while brokering a massive set of trade agreements that had Iraq supplying France with 700 million barrels of oil over ten years and spending billions on French military equipment, including tanks, missiles, and Mirage F-1 fighters. In addition, Iraq agreed to buy 100,000 French-made cars and invited French companies to develop a billion-dollar resort complex near Baghdad. Hussein, of course, wanted something in return: French assistance in building a nuclear reactor plus a source of weapons-grade uranium to use as starter fuel. Chirac was so eager to oblige that Hussein’s infamous Osirak nuclear reactor earned the nickname O’Chirac among French critics of the deal.
There was ample cause for concern. “The agreement with France is the first concrete step toward production of the Arab atomic bomb,” said Hussein, ominously. In 1981, Israel came to believe the plant posed a threat to its national survival and destroyed it in a daring airstrike. Although many now view the raid as an act of providential foresight, at the time most governments (including the United States) criticized the attack. Few issued more vituperative condemnations than Paris: “Unacceptable, dangerous, and a serious violation of international law,” said foreign minister Claude Cheysson.
Twenty years later, on the day Osama bin Laden’s henchmen brought unimaginable terror to the United States, Chirac seemed genuinely moved. In a display of goodwill and solidarity, he rushed to the side of President George W. Bush. His government supported American military action in Afghanistan and sent peacekeepers to assist the post-Taliban government. Yet September 11 did nothing to alter France’s fundamental approach to global affairs. Chirac made it clear that he was skeptical of extending the war on terrorism beyond the borders of Afghanistan. When Bush spoke of an “axis of evil” that included Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in early 2002, Paris snickered: “The rhetoric of good and evil is not suitable for the reality of today’s world,” said a Chirac confidant. One top French official, Charles Josselin, told a Saudi newspaper that the Bush administration suffered from “Texas-style diplomacy”–a phrase meant as an insult in European circles. Former foreign minister Hubert Vedrine was even more outspoken: “Today we are threatened by a simplicity that reduces all the problems of the world to the struggle against terrorism that is not properly thought through,” he said.
Franco-American relations deteriorated at the popular level as well. In France, ugly conspiracy theories about September 11 became disturbingly prevalent. One of the most sinister was cooked up by Thierry Meyssan, a self-styled investigative journalist who claimed in his book L’Effroyable Imposture–”The Big Lie”–that the common understanding of what happened was based on “nothing more than a cover-up” and “lies put forward by officials.” According to Meyssan, “the attacks of September 11 were masterminded from inside the American state apparatus”–i.e., George W. Bush–as a justification for reckless warfare. By the summer of 2002–long before Michael Moore became a household name–L’Effroyable Imposture had sold more than 200,000 copies in France.
As the first anniversary of September 11 approached, Chirac tried to minimize his profound differences with the United States by relying on that old standby in the French politician’s playbook: the enduring myth of Franco-American friendship. “When the chips are down,” he declared, “the French and Americans have always stood together and have never failed to be there for one another.” At the same time, he proved incapable of hiding his disdain for what he took to be America’s hamfisted approach to international problems. “I am totally against unilateralism [i.e. American foreign policy] in the modern world,” he said. The emerging American doctrine of pre-emptive action to thwart national-security threats, he added, was “extraordinarily dangerous.” But after the carnage of 9-11, the United States was not interested in waiting for its enemies to strike. It would move against them before they could mount an effective attack.
–The story continues in Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France, by John J. Miller and Mark Molesky.