Thursday, April 15, 2004


It is worth remembering that on Chirac's last visit to Algeria in March of last year, the first by any French president since Algerian independence in 1962, he was met by a cheering crowd of somewhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million people (last November, I attended a lecture by Pascal Bruckner at NYU's maison française: he said the people in the crowd were really shouting, "Visa! Visa!").

Commentators largely attributed his newfound popularity to his opposition to American plans to go to war with Saddam. Indeed, the day after Chirac's visit, president Bouteflika told radio station Europe 1 Chirac deserved the Nobel peace prize for his opposition to war. Among Chirac's critics, was the heroic Cynon Valley (Wales) MP Anne Clwyd (who is also chair of Indict). She wrote wrote that Bouteflika "was perhaps persuaded of the merit of the nomination during a meeting he had in September 2002 with Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as Chemical Ali, the man responsible for the slaughter of thousands of innocent Iraqis. As the French would say, 'plus ça change.'"

Last October, Sa'ad Zaki, a Cairo date seller who and the main supplier to the city's grocery stores, told the AFP that the "the surprise of this Ramadan will the be the Chirac date," which sold for 20 Egyptian pounds ($3.20) per kilo. (The prophet is believed to have broken his Ramadan fast by eating dates and drinking goat's milk). The Chirac was being sold alongside the worst dates which had the same names as last year: the Sharon (10¢ per kilo) and the Bush (15¢). The Chirac was popular, Zaki said, because "the Arabs feel positions taken by Chirac on Iraq and the Palestinian cause are the most moderate." On Iraq, "France opposed the United States, the world superpower." The second highest quality date was the Yasser Arafat (70¢ to $1.50 per kilo).

This was a glaring illustration of France's politique arabe (or "Arab policy"). France has long sought to protect it's strategic, diplomatic and financial interests by adopting Arab causes and Jacques Chirac has been at the central to this strategy since his first days in national politics. On coming to power in 1981, François Mitterrand was desperate to prevent the withdrawal of Arab deposits from French banks. His repeated promises to end the sale of weapons to Iraq and his support for Israel irritated wealthy Arabs and their heads of state who had largely supported his opponent... Jacques Chirac. As it gathered speed, the capital flight risked devaluing the franc itself and Mitterrand was forced to go back on his campaign pledges.

France's famous beneficence toward Saddam wasn't simply a matter of securing Iraqi petrodollars (though that had a lot to do with it). Nor is France's outspoken, and sometimes scandalous, bias in favor of the Palestinian cause. Rather, both arise out of the strategic desire to court the entire Arab world.

During the Iran-Iraq war, France was way out in front of every other Western nation in its support for Saddam against the Iranian mullahs. In 1982, France made considerable sacrifices in order to lend Saddam five (5) fighter jets (from its own operational stocks!). But it wasn't long before they expected something in return. On page 128 of the investigative history Notre allié Saddam, Claude Angeli and Stéphanie Mesnier write
[Defense minister Charles] Hernu and [prime minister Claude] Cheysson then begin a series of visits to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait, accompanied by a few colleagues and by François Gutmann, secretary general the ministry of Foreign Affairs. The French are delighted by the improvement in their image among Arab nations. In 1982, three quarters of French weapons exports were sent to Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

"All the Arabs we met were asking us to give Iraq the Super-Etendard," said one of the diplomats present. "Our policy was informed and well thought-out. Besides, by the end of 1983, after the delivery of those five [Mirage fighter] planes, Cheysson went on a triumphal tour of the Gulf. The principal was the following: to cash in on the credit we had earned in the region. It rained contracts."
This policy lives on to this day, as Jonathan's translation below makes clear. From April 21 to 26, Defense minister Michèle Alliot-Marie will be touring the midde-east, visiting the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Jordan.

Since the passage of the ban on the hidjab, France's position in the Arab world has deterioated somewhat.

But I digress: the article Jonathan translates below is revealing, given the current context. Mohamed Benchicou, editor in chief of the Algerian daily Le Matin, and author of Bouteflika: an Algerian fraud, recently said the following during a live chat on
Libre: Isn't Jacques Chirac's trip to Algeria an absolute endorsement of the results of the presidential election? In a wider sense, what is the relationship between president Bouteflika and France?

Mohamed Benchicou
: President Chirac's brutal visit to Algeria has surprised the Algerians and particularly Algerian democrats, who do indeed see a kind of endorsement in this, not only of president Bouteflika, but of the fraud the returned him to office. Algerian republicans hope still hope that president Chirac's trip to Algiers will serve to relay a message to Bouteflika on the respect for his commitment to democracy, pluralism, and freedom of the press, and [to urge him] to avoid the temptation of Stalinist hegemony that returned him 85% of the vote in the first round of voting and the complete annihilation of the opposition. Let's hope that this message will be borne by president Chirac. As for Franco-Algerian relations, it is obvious that, in diplomatic and political terms, they've seen a fantastic rise, because, over the last five years, president Bouteflika has visited France seven times and President Chirac has visited Algeria twice, which is remarkable and which has brought diplomatic relations to a level heretofore unseen. But such good relations have remained strictly diplomatic. Algerians saw nothing of it. They have had no economic or commercial results, no new investments, nor have they seen the return of French companies to Algeria or the lifting of strict requirements for Algerians obtaining visas. There's just been a recrudescence of relations, of state visits and diplomatic ones.

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