Politics & Policy

Letter From Barnier

My response to the French foreign minister.

“I am writing to you as a friend of America,” says Michel Barnier, the foreign minister of France, in a “Letter to America” published in this morning’s Wall Street Journal (unavailable online to non-subscribers). Now that there’s no chance of the Kerry administration throwing a swanky state dinner for France, it’s possible to interpret Barnier’s letter as the second part of a new public-relations campaign to salvage Franco-American relations. The first olive branch came last week, with French president Jacques Chirac’s surprisingly warm letter congratulating President Bush on his reelection.

But the content of Barnier’s open letter suggests that he doesn’t fully appreciate why so many Americans are irritated at France.

“I am writing to you as the citizen of a country that helped your country secure its own independence.”

The French love to take credit for helping American colonists break free from British rule. To be sure, France provided enormous and perhaps indispensable aid during the War of Independence. But a proper understanding of history requires us to recognize that French motives were entirely cynical. King Louis XVI certainly did not accept the principles of the Declaration of Independence. He regarded as abhorrent the notion that “all men are created equal.” Lafayette was even branded a fugitive when he first traveled to America to help General Washington’s cause. This unfortunate matter was cleared up only after the French formally decided to intervene in the conflict–a decision that was based wholly on the desire to hurt Britain rather than help America. During the final years of the war, France pressed the Americans to accept a peace agreement that would have kept New York City, the Carolinas, and Georgia within the British Empire. After Yorktown and during the actual peace talks, the French turned on their erstwhile allies and tried to limit American territorial gains. If the French had gotten their way at the Treaty of Paris, the United States would have been confined to a narrow strip of territory along the eastern seaboard–like a North American version of Chile.

“I’m concerned about the campaigns against my country, and the recent surge of ‘French-bashing.’”

I suppose Barnier thinks I’m part of the problem, as the co-author of a new book called Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France. But what exactly is “French-bashing”? The French have tried to suggest that it’s a form of racism. “When you insult the French people, simply because they are French, then it’s a kind of racism campaign,” Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador to the United States, has said. This is silly. The charge is leveled as a debate stopper that means to obscure the real problem. Americans are critical of France these days not because they’re odious Francophobes, but because they’re sincerely and legitimately upset about French behavior over the last few years–behavior that has actually hurt the United States. Moreover, I would wager that there’s much more “America-bashing” going on in France than there is “French-bashing” going on in the United States. Long before Fahrenheit 9/11, books touting conspiracy theories about the Bush administration’s complicity in September 11 were selling hundreds of thousands of copies in France. And consider this sentiment, expressed on the pages of Le Monde shortly after the terrorist strikes: “How we have dreamt of this event,” wrote Jean Baudrillard, a prominent French intellectual. “How all the world without exception dreamt of this event, for no one can avoid dreaming of the destruction of a power that has become hegemonic. … It is they who acted, but we who wanted the deed.” So before lecturing Americans on “French-bashing,” Barnier should take a hard look at what his countrymen have been saying about us–or at least those countrymen “who wanted the deed.”

“France is actually among your best friends in the fight against terrorism.”

Au contraire. At the very moment when Bush began to speak of the need to fight a war on terror–”a new kind of war,” he called it–Chirac expressed his reservations. “I don’t know whether we should use the word war,” he said, standing beside Bush one week after September 11. Later, of course, there was the dispute over Iraq. As Barnier says in the Journal, “Let us recognize without animosity that the war in Iraq deeply divided us.” Okay, let us. But let’s not pretend that the animosity is over, at least not when France is demanding that the insurgent groups now murdering Iraqi civilians and killing American troops receive a formal place at this month’s international conference in Egypt. This was an astonishing demand whose only conceivable goal was to bring further chaos to a country that already is suffering from more than enough of it. Think about it this way: Today’s newspapers are full of stories about France cracking down on insurgents in the Ivory Coast, where gangs of thugs are attacking French peacekeepers and white residents. France is hitting back hard, as it should. But how would Barnier feel if the United States suddenly said that these violent mobs deserved the legitimacy of international recognition? Would he still call us one his country’s best friends?

“Because we have common interests everywhere, we should have common ambitions.”

Agreed. But before we join hands and face the future, French political and intellectual leaders must quit referring to the United States as an out-of-control “hyperpower” whose activities requiring “balancing” (i.e., opposing) on the international stage. Only then will genuinely fruitful cooperation on a full range of problems be possible.

“Why not convene a high-level group right now, consisting of independent, respected figures from both sides of the Atlantic to explore ways in which we can deepen our political cooperation?”

This proposal sounds curiously like John Kerry’s call for a “summit.” Of course, there’s no harm in holding some meetings. That’s how a lot of diplomacy gets done. But we shouldn’t expect much from them. What matters much more than words–including words written in letter to America–are deeds. Let France make the first move.

John J. Miller is a writer for National Review and the author of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France. For more information about his book, visit www.oldestenemy.com.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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