Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Oil-for-Food Articles in French Media Fraught With Excuses, Justification, High-Falutin' Principles, and the Best of Intentions

It is with a dubious voice that Le Monde ends an editorial on the latest developments in France's involvement in the oil-for-food scandal with a complaint by French officials that "the accusations of corruption are nothing more than an attempt to 'soil' the reputation of France's diplomacy". But in the meantime, the newspaper of reference has also stated that the
623 pages of the "Volcker report" … offer a damning read for all those who had placed their faith in the transparency and the efficiency of UN institutions. They are even more disappointing for those who wanted to see in France's decisions, when she appealed for an adjustment of the sanctions and against the outbreak of the Iraq war in 2003, nothing but a model of diplomacy based on a certain conception of morality.
Now, we all know what the independent daily would have said had revelations of the type erupted about an American administration. There, the French paper would not have wasted one nano-second in coming straight out and snorting that Bush (or whoever) was a hypocrite, a liar, a crook, scoffing or laughing at the Americans' pretensions, and castigating America's administration, the American government, and/or American society. With its own government (and with the United Nations), however (what a change!), check out the reluctance: it brings up emotions and regrets, it reminds its readers (and itself) of the high-falutin' principles involved, and it ardently wishes that its childhood beliefs could be preserved.

Believe it or not, it gets worse — with the investigation the independent daily commissioned its own reporters to carry out.

How do you start out on a French article dealing with France's involvement in the oil-for-food scandal? If you are Gérard Davet and Natalie Nougayrède, you evoke 30 years of faithful ties and bring in a touching scene full of pathos between Iraq's Tarek Aziz and Frenchman Serge Boidevaix as the sounds of war draw closer.

"What can France do?" I.e., to avoid war. The Iraqi says nothing. Tears well in his eyes. "He already knew the dice were cast", Mr Boidevaix would later confide.
The Le Monde article goes on to quote Boidevaix (who is still président of the Chambre de commerce franco-arabe) blaming the UN system, freeing a French prisoner from Abu Ghraib, reminiscing about "secular Iraq of the '70s and '80s, a country in full expansion!", and opposing the Americans' embargo "from conviction". Just look at the busy man's activities:
He speaks at symposiums in Paris, visits the Baghdad fair, appears at the Baghdad Conference, which groups anti-embargo militants.
Just to make sure readers understand that the French are particular about principles, Le Monde notes that the Quai d'Orsay sent Boidevaix a letter in September 2001 (did the letter come before or after the WTC attacks, and is it in any way related to the attacks? probably not, but the article doesn't say) asking him "not to stray from the code of ethics" and to be vigilant regarding "the separation of the political and the private spheres". (Imagine the snorts and mockery had a similar State Department letter turned up regarding Enron or Halliburton.)

The article points out that there are three categories of "friends of Saddam": idéologues, affairistes, and militants-affairistes. Ideologues and militants had, or have, at least partly good intentions, and are therefore owed a measure of redemption (hence the entire tone of this article and Le Monde's coverage in general), while hucksters and wheeler-dealers (affairistes) are nothing but dirty capitalist pigs (of the, need we mention it, American-type style). In fact, expecially redeeming is the fact that "militants" "militated" against the (American-organised) embargo.

Regarding Boidevaix, at least, French citizens can feel proud that he is an ideologue. Not so with Jean-Bernard Mérimée, who (I can hardly believe I am reading this), "contrary to Serge Boidevaix, has never made an effort to publicly defend the policy of France in the Iraqi crisis"!

Regarding the other individuals in the French networks of oil-for-food, more emotion is brought up (something that is not done for Russia, whereas a piece on Total conveniently ends with a quote from one of the French company's officials). Listen to this dramatic development:

On November 7, 2005, at dawn, the life of Michel Grimard was turned upside down. The investigators of Judge Courroye call on that member of the Gaullist circle at his home in Paris. A former member of the RPR's Conseil National, a former organizer, in the 1990s, of French parliamentarians' trips to Baghdad, Mr. Grimard is incarcerated. "I who in my life have met with heads of state, including de Gaulle," he remembers with emotion, "suddenly I was being treated like a common punk!"
After learning more details about the "small man with a worried face, animator of the Mouvement Chrétien Ve République", who has known Tarek Aziz "for 30 years" and who, in "the galaxy of the France-Iraq networks, is one of the militants", we are introduced to a woman of principle.
The France-Iraq networks are something that Roselyne Bachelot has known, but she has never touched any oil bonds. The former minister, a European deputy, made several trips to Baghdad during the embargo. "I never accepted meeting Saddam Hussein, even though the Iraqis often suggested doing so, for the photo op", she points out. During the 1990s, Jacques Chirac had asked her to take the presidency of the groupe d'études France-Iraq in the Assemblée Nationale. She was a militant against the sanctions; and she was fond of Tarek Aziz — an "agreeable and open" man.
At this point in the article, we finally learn (albeit indirectly) what everybody has known all along. And what in fact Frenchmen of all types — politicians, journalists, editorial-writers, common citizens, bloggers, message-writers — fret and rail about (such as on this blog) as foreigners' "anti-French" attempts "to 'soil' the reputation of France's diplomacy".
For her, contrary to the assurances of the foreign affairs ministry, Serge Boidevaix was "obviously in contact", during these years, with the French authorities: "He was part of 'the family'. I know how things work."
One might think that any article with the least bit of honesty — and any article on a similar scandal taking place in America or anywhere abroad) would have ended with that quote. That is forgetting that the independent newspaper is perhaps not as independent as it makes out to be. In fact, the emotions and the scapegoating get better:
Gilles Munier, 61, is an Iraq enthusiast who lives in Rennes. He says that his universe — that of a "certain French policy toward the Arab world" — has collapsed. The victim, in his mind, of American and Israeli acts.
Surreal enough for you? But never fear: this brave militant, Secrétaire général of the Associations des amitiés franco-irakiennes (which he founded in 1986), is down but not out.
His troubles have not dissuaded him from militing, even today, in favor of France's ties with Arab regimes, notably that of the Syrian Bachar Al-Assad. This affable character assiduously attended the Baghdad Conferences organised by Tarek Aziz twice a year, to bring together the Iraq support groups from Europe, Russia, India, or Latin America.
(Speaking of Europe's support groups, listen to the noble principles of Hans Van Sponeck, a German colleague of Munier, Boidevaix, Bachelot, Grimard's.)
Gilles Munier, who in the past has helped French MPs and journalists travel to Baghdad, is adamant about his good faith. All the money that the Aredio and Taurus brokerage companies did not end up in his pocket, he says, but served to finance his association's activities. The purchase of advertising space (notably in Le Monde, in january 2001), the organisation of symposiums, the shipping of humanitarian aid to Iraq, trips to Baghdad. Thus,
i.e., in those banal and (in the final analysis) non-threatening ways,
did the Saddam Hussein government
i.e., the despotic government whose atrocities we are never reminded of (all we hear about is the "agreeable and open" Iraqi official whose eyes "well up" with tears)
finance the networks that supported it in France
i.e., that supported Saddam's régime with nothing more threatening than the organisation of symposiums, the shipping of humanitarian aid to Iraq, trips to Baghdad, symposiums in Paris, the Baghdad fair, the Baghdad Conference, etc…