Friday, April 02, 2004

The Ghost of Charles de Gaulle

ince its first remodeled issue appeared last Monday (the front page will be in color from now on), the International Herald Tribune will be featuring a different column every day of the week on page 2. Tuesday's column, entitled Politicus, will be signed by the ever-excellent John Vinocur, and his first article has already been discussed here. Friday's, entitled Europa, will be signed by Richard Bernstein, and his inaugural article discusses French foreign policy since World War Two.

In the article, entitled "Behind the Gallic bark, more rhetoric than bite", the New York Times writer says that
in large part because of the discrepancy in actual power between [France and the United States], Gaullism is actually more a rhetorical pose than a political reality, or, as the French commentator Alain Duhamel puts it, 'Gaullism is not a doctrine or a policy, it's a sensibility.' Perhaps Gaullism gets its most concrete manifestation in France's urge to maintain its own special zones of influence outside Europe, most importantly in the Arab world.

Indeed, that is one reason it refused [Ronald Reagan's] Libyan overflight request [in 1987] and why it refused to go to war in Iraq or to send troops there for the reconstruction. France does not want to be seen in the Arab world as an American handmaiden. Yet the main principles of French foreign policy — building European integration and upholding the United Nations Security Council as the sole authority legitimizing the use of force — are hardly Gaullist.

Both principles adapt a certain Gaullist Vulgate in that both magnify French power. But in following them, France gives primary authority to international organizations of the kind that made de Gaulle's nationalist skin crawl. After all, de Gaulle kept the British out of Europe and he called the UN "a contemptible platform for sensational speeches, auction-house bidding, and the worst of threats"…

[Bernstein ends his article thus:] It is important to remember that de Gaulle himself sided with the United States in the big crises of his era: on the Berlin blockade, for example, or the Cuban missile crisis. Similarly, Chirac sided with the United States in the 1991 Gulf war, in Kosovo and in Afghanistan. Iraq was an exception. And that suggests what might be the biggest difference between France today and in de Gaulle's time: it is that France may feel the impulse from time to time to build Europe as a counterweight to the United States, but whatever France does in the post-Gaullist world, it does not want to, and indeed cannot, do it alone.
All good stuff. But what reporters, Americans or otherwise, always seem to fail to get, it seems to me, is the following, and it is the most important: the extremely harsh (hateful, actually) anti-American tone in the population, the relative insouciance of the government and the population alike with regards to appearing to be the handmaiden of anybody else (Chinese autocrats, third-world dictators, Iraqi butchers, etc), and how all this plays out in France's day-to-day relations with Washington and other countries and in its attendant policies.

How surprizing, after all, is it that a former KGB colonel (Stanislas Sorokine) could declare the following to a French journalist: "It was never too difficult to find Frenchmen who, without feeling they were spying for the USSR, were ready to collaborate against a common enemy: the United States. After all, that was the official policy of your government at the time"? (Il n'était pas trop difficile de trouver des Français qui, sans avoir le sentiment d'espionner au profit de l'URSS, étaient disposés à une collaboration contre un ennemi commun : les Etats-Unis. C'était après tout la ligne officielle de votre gouvernement à l'époque.)

And even when Paris does assist the United States, it actually does remain consistent. All it ever does, or fails to do, is always part of its commitment to peace, of its superior capacity to reason, of its more enlightened lucidity, etc, and if only everybody listened to the French, and understood how much wiser they are than everybody else, problems in this world would start getting solved. C'est l'auto-congratulation permanente.

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