French Kiss-off

Punishing dissent in Snail Country


The French journalist Alain Hertoghe paid a heavy price for accusing leading French newspapers of being unreasonably critical of the United States when covering the war in Iraq. In a recent book, La Guerre ? Outrances, he wrote that the papers saw "the war they would have liked to have seen," infusing news stories with their ideological preferences. This prompted Hertoghe's own employer, the Catholic daily La Croix, to fire him because he had maligned its war coverage.

Many might observe that Hertoghe was merely stating the obvious: the notoriously subjective press in France has always been ambiguous toward the United States, and in the case of the Iraq war its criticisms merely mirrored an unsympathetic mood pervading French society. However, the fate that befell the journalist revealed something more perverse, namely that France's foreign policy self-esteem continues to be propped up by dubious perceptions that simply should not be challenged.

As it happens, a leading perception is that of a "French alternative" in the Middle East, which holds that France is virtually one among equal world powers in the region, whose interests must be taken into consideration whenever important decisions are pending. Ever since Charles de Gaulle realigned French policy away from Israel after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, France has regarded itself as an independent troubleshooter in the region, often advancing its interests against those of the United States, while also filling the gaps Washington has left open.

This self-image has been largely made possible by France's being a permanent member of the Security Council. However, it has stood against the reality that no Middle East state friendly (or unfriendly) to Paris and Washington considers its relationship with France as even moderately equivalent to that with the US. At best, ties with France are used as leverage against the Americans, never as a substitute.

The contours of this purported French alternative were not necessarily sharpened with the emergence of the European Union. In April 1996, for example, France's foreign minister, Herve de Charette, took on a diplomatic mission during Israel's Grapes of Wrath operation in Lebanon that undermined EU interests as much as it did American ones. It was Paris, not Washington or Brussels, which initiated the so-called "April understanding," although the Clinton administration hijacked the proposal once it proved to be a useful means to end the border conflict.

France's achievement brought confidence to its Middle Eastern diplomacy, which had shown little real success after the Madrid conference in 1991. Yet this led nowhere. Paris soon resorted to playing the role of spoiler in Iraq, as it headed an effort to lift UN sanctions there, which would have conveniently allowed French companies to rake in billions of dollars from contracts with the Ba'ath regime. This hardheadedness may have been financially explicable, but it also meant France was hitching its Iraqi fortunes to the resilience of Saddam Hussein.

As Hertoghe wrote in his book: "As a result of being permanently confronted with dictatorial, or at least authoritarian, states and abusive or even terrorist means, a kind of tolerance develops, which sometimes drifts into open complaisance."

That the French were complaisant with the Ba'ath regime was plain in the run-up to the Iraq war, after Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin indicated France would prevent military action at all costs: "We will not allow a [UN] resolution to pass that authorizes resorting to force," said de Villepin at a press conference with his Russian and German counterparts. This contradicted the spirit of UN Security Council resolution 1441, but also raised questions about French acumen, since the statement could be justified neither on idealistic nor pragmatic grounds.

With respect to idealism, it made little sense for France to engage in a quixotic effort to derail a war that was by then certain to happen. Far more usefully, France could have abstained at the Security Council, preserved a friendly rapport with the US and used this to help ensure that the humanitarian interests of Iraqis would be protected. When it came to pragmatism, French combativeness merely guaranteed that once the war ended, Paris would be viewed with hostility, marginalizing it in post-war bargaining over reconstruction contracts and the debt owed to it by Iraq.

French President Jacques Chirac managed to hide behind the fact that the public supported him. That's why France has yet to engage in a public debate over whether it gained anything politically from its fervent opposition to the US. Yet Chirac and de Villepin had nothing to show for their efforts. If anything, the French president's slapping down of Eastern European states for supporting the US on Iraq (where he imperiously remarked that they "missed a good opportunity to keep quiet") only confirmed he would tolerate no dissent on his policy choices.

Apparently La Croix was of a similar disposition, even though Hertoghe was far less critical of its coverage than he was of reporting in such papers as Le Monde, Le Figaro and Lib?ration. Yet Iraq was significant enough an episode in recent French Middle East diplomacy to require different behavior. Did the French media fail to ask the right questions about the wisdom of their government's performance prior to the Iraq conflict? Did they intentionally avoid providing more objective news of the war?

These are perfectly legitimate questions in a Western democracy, and they merit more than this rejoinder to Hertoghe—that he missed a good opportunity to keep quiet.