They're proud to be anti-American in the birthplace of chauvinism
February 20 2003
As a nation with a strong sense of destiny, France has reacted in a visceral way to US posturing over Iraq, writes Sophie Masson.
France is in the news again, alternately pilloried and praised, depending on your point of view. This is not one of those articles that does either, though for the record I disagree with French Government policy in the stand-off over Iraq.
First, myths should be laid to rest. France is not uniquely prone to surrender - many other territories surrendered to the German war machine, including the Channel Islands, which are part of Britain.
France is not, either, the home of idealism and human rights as depicted by the left: the extremist republican coup d'etat of 1792, which unilaterally destroyed the monarchy and precipitated hideous civil war, killed real governmental reform in France, and gave it instead an authoritarian and divisive legacy which endures to this day. Equally, France is not uniquely selfish in its foreign policy.
The facts, now. It's not all about oil, though sanctions-busting French companies, such as the oil giant TotalFinaElf, have large direct contracts with the Saddam regime. It's not just about avoiding a backlash from extremist French Muslims; the state is happy to crack down hard on them when it wants to.
Equally, though France has never been close to Israel, it knows full well that the Arab world is fickle, that the leader you may be dealing with today may be assassinated tomorrow.
It's not just about an opportunistic domestic agenda, an attempt to recover the ground lost to Le Pen, though President Chirac knows that the combination of harsh new police laws and throwing France's weight around internationally will help to rally both left and right to him.
The basis to France's stance is visceral. Most French people will cheerfully admit to being anti-American. This is not a case of a resentful inferiority complex, as can be the case in Britain and Australia, for instance. France has a sense of destiny, a "civilising mission", just like the United States; it is as a rival, not as a client, that French anti-Americanism expresses itself.
Official France sees itself as representing one view of human development, and the US as another. It's not sheer power we're talking about, but an "empire of influence". Jacques Chirac put this clearly last year when he made a speech at a Francophone conference in Africa, on the idea that France could present a "light to the nations".
But there are older rivalries at work here too. For many, maybe most, French people who couldn't care less about such notions as France as the Home of Human Rights, it is the idea that the US is the inheritor to British world power that really exercises them.
The Anglo-Saxon hegemony represented by the alliance between Britain, Australia and the US only serves to confirm that theory. Recent opinion polls in France show clearly that Chirac is on a winner, challenging the Americans and reclaiming French pride (though the sardonic national character also leads many people to cast extreme doubt on his motives).
Repositioning France as the driving political and philosophical motor of the European Union also plays a very large part in French policy. This was nakedly revealed by Chirac in his extraordinary outburst on Tuesday against the central and eastern European EU applicants who had dared to express an opinion contrary to France's - and the threat by his Foreign Minister, Michele Aliot, that these applicants could still face a blocking referendum "in any member state".
The EU has always been seen by French politicians as a French project, regaining international influence for France, diluting "Anglo-Saxon" influence, and nobbling Germany's imperialism. It is no accident that the Belgian capital, midway between France and Germany, is the administrative capital of the EU, and oft-disputed Strasbourg, on the Rhine frontier, is its parliamentary capital. Repelling Anglo-Saxon influence is why Britain's entry into the EU was so fiercely resisted.
Today, the changing composition of the EU means control is slipping away from France and its unsteady ally, Germany. Mounting bilateral declarations against war, stymieing US efforts to get a united front against Iraq, attempting to intimidate small European applicant countries, even trying to block NATO military aid to Turkey - these are all signs that France is adopting an aggressive policy towards protecting its own idea of the EU.
The central and eastern Europeans, as well as Turkey, are seen in Paris as stalking horses for the US, and high-handedly threatened because of this.
But there is no sign that the countries concerned will sit meekly in their corner waiting for Papa Chirac's permission to speak.
The letter signed by the eight full EU members who overtly support the US stance is another gauntlet thrown down. The struggle may well become bitter, and has probably halted any attempt at closer political union in the EU.
Meanwhile, France is willing to pull out all stops to regain its influence. That is its right. But whether this stance is wise, admirable or even realistic in world terms is quite another matter.
Sophie Masson is a French-Australian writer. Her latest novel, The Hand of Glory, posits an alternative Australia in which France has settled Western Australia.