Politics & Policy

Magic Moments

The French foreign minister makes a promise he can't keep.

There’s never been a French politician quite like Bernard Kouchner, the unpredictable and always interesting foreign minister. The champion of interventionist relief operations and the co-founder of Doctors without Borders, Kouchner is an impatient and volatile civic celebrity who has forced a reevaluation of the conventional approaches to despair everywhere by playing the media like a Dixie fiddle.

As a man nurtured by the press — and married to the one of the most famous telejournalists in France, Christine Okrent — Kouchner by now knows how to get his face on the pages of American newspapers by uttering a handful of magical words.

For example, last Tuesday Kouchner told the International Herald Tribune that no matter who wins the election in November, “the magic is over” for the U.S. He must have had a hunch he was writing his own headline. Sure enough, a few hours later, there it was: “’Magic is over’ for U.S., says French foreign minister.”

The IHT said this was part of “a sober assessment from one of the strongest supporters in France of the United States.” But it sounds a little tipsy to me. For many in France, the magic of America will never end. Take, for example, Marion Cotillard’s belief, reported in the Daily Telegraph, that the U.S. government was behind 9/11.And that moonwalk thing? That was just movie-like magic.

But the best part of Kouchner’s “sober assessment” comes a little further down the item. It’s this:

Asked whether the United States could repair the damage it has suffered to its reputation during the Bush presidency and especially since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Kouchner replied, “It will never be as it was before.”

Promises, promises. All we can do is hope, since “as it was before” was pretty terrible.

During the Clinton administration, the Quai d’Orsay, under the rule of Lionel Jospin’s venomous foreign minister, Hubert Védrine, maintained a viciously anti-American foreign policy, railing against NATO’s plan to embrace new members in Eastern Europe and calling the U.S. an “unchecked hyper-power.” Meanwhile, former president François Mitterand was confiding to others that France was permanently, even magically, “at war with America.”

During the Reagan and Bush I presidencies, everyone old enough to lift a cobblestone was furious at the U.S. defense policies that ultimately led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Mitterand, like all postwar French political leaders up to Nicolas Sarkozy, used anti-Americanism as a magical political tool. His key foreign-policy adviser, Regis Debray, may have been Ché’s amigo in Latin America, but neither Debray nor Mitterand was a friend of America’s.

During the Nixon and LBJ administrations, antiwar and anti-American demonstrations were just as stylish in Europe as they were in the U.S. In fact, such was the magical power of America that French kids thought by stoning the U.S. embassy, as they did in the May 1968 student riots that had little to do with American policies, they could topple Charles de Gaulle. “Yankee go home” first appeared magically in Paris during Ike’s presidency.

Et cetera. If you want more, you’ll want the NRO review of Philippe Roger’s The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism. Roger’s book contains 536 pages of French adoration of the magic that is America, starting in the 1700s, when mad French scientists declared their magical belief that North American lifeforms were inferior on account of New World air, a notion that’s had a certain modernist reprise, I guess.

But if Kouchner’s right, then all it took to end France’s affection for anti-Americanism was the invasion of Iraq and the oratorical genius of George W. “It will never be as it was before” sounds good to me. Maybe the IHT missed its own scoop.

We’ve all been cheering for Sarko lately, and mostly for good reasons: He likes to jog, vacation in America, and eat burgers with the Bushes. He diminished the power of the énarques, that odious, carcinogenic French ruling class. He married somebody with better hair than Dominique de Villepin. He’s even suggested the French might pitch in to help NATO in Afghanistan, where 30,000 U.S. troops are busy doing what NATO’s other members only pretend to be doing.

But lighting that Yankee candle may have burned him, politically. His numbers are falling and the opposition is regaining consciousness.

So Sarkozy and his cabinet ministers have been reverting to French form lately, proposing a “Kyoto tax” on nations (read the USA) who won’t toe Kyoto’s wiggly green line and blaming France’s economic problems on American-style market economics. The rejection by French voters of the proposed EU constitution has been handled by adopting the nearly identical Treaty of Lisbon by legislative action and without subjecting it to a referendum, where it would surely lose.

Sarkozy’s maneuver mirrors the cynical strategy in play throughout Europe. (Only Ireland will vote on Lisbon, and if you think trading away Irish sovereignty is going to bother economically content Irish voters, you’re wrong.) The treaty was approved in Paris without much of a murmur. The press in France, as in the U.K. and elsewhere, were so overwhelmed by the treaty’s tsunami of details that they just ignored it and reported on Hillary’s wardrobe instead.

The whole thing was made simple by a French politician whose name I missed when he explained to the BBC how it works: “First, France said, ‘No’ [to the EU]. Now, France says, ‘Yes!’.”

It’s like magic!

 – Denis Boyles is author, most recently, of Superior, Nebraska. He teaches at the Brouzils Seminars.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...


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