TCS Daily

France's Last Best Hope

By Melana Zyla Vickers - February 27, 2003 12:00 AM

As France continues to assert its place as the world's prime dissenter on Iraq, it's easy to wave off the behavior as typical of that nation's perennial political opposition to U.S. policies. Slice through this crust, though, and it turns out that France's moves have as much to do with the Gallic elite's fear of losing its remaining threads of political and economic influence in the Muslim world as it does with knee-jerk anti-Americanism.

This analysis doesn't excuse the recalcitrance - but it might help to translate it. And a translation may in time help outsiders convince the French of the error of their ways.

The way Paris politicos see it, Iraq under Saddam Hussein's Baath party is, for all its depredations, France's last best client state in the Middle East, one of the few polities to attempt a kind of secularized, socialist Islam a la Francaise. It is France that gave shape to Iraq's dirigiste economy. It is French companies that served as models for Iraq's nationalized oil sector in the 1970s. It is France that built, back in 1975, the Osirak nuclear facility that Israel destroyed in 1981.

If the ruling party is ousted in a U.S.-led military campaign, it is sure to be replaced, the French fear, by an Anglo-Saxon model of government and economics. Not only would that leave the French political legacy out in the cold, it would freeze out of privileged relationships many French oil, construction, and consumer-goods businesses as well.
France's political parties also could suffer under a post-Saddam Iraq - most have deep ties with the regime, from the Socialist Chevenementistes whose leader resigned from the Mitterrand cabinet in protest of the 1991 Gulf War, to the more conservative Chiraquistes. Exposing the ties could prove highly embarrassing.

First, the more high-minded stuff. Across the board, the French genuinely do believe that their model of governance is ideal for Iraq and other Muslim societies. The popular press is replete with references to the French Revolution's forcible separation of religion from the state and the need for similar modernizations in the Muslim world. "The secularization (rendering secular under Kemal Ataturk) of Turkey has nothing to envy the example of Jacobin France," explained a recent Le Monde article about the compatibility of Islam with democracy.

One analyst describes Muslim societies ruled by French-style centralized, republican government as "civilized and accessible," while the others are, or risk becoming, "violent, fascist and condemnable." It's this dichotomy that allows the French to see Saddam's depredations as less evil than those that some theoretical Islamic fundamentalists might wreak. The French Left has for years been contemptuous of Turkey's more free-market turn, calling late President Turgut Ozal a "Reaganite" (in its eyes a criticism). Clearly, in such a worldview, a Muslim society ruled by a U.S.-supported, democratic-capitalist government would quickly go to the dogs.

At its core, though, France's opposition to Saddam's ouster is less about self-improvement for Muslims than it is about self-interest for the French. France is Iraq's top trade partner, accounting in 2001 for $1.6 billion in construction, energy, and other services, as well as cars, drugs, and consumer goods. That's not to mention France's role as the Iraqi oil industry's principal financial go-between under the U.N. oil for food deal, and past bankrolling for Iraq's military. In a statist economic system, political ties are essential to clinching deals. From France's point of view, far better than regime change would be for Saddam's regime crumble sur place, so that today's key decisionmakers might remain in Baghdad's government offices and in Paris's government rolodexes.

Alas, there are more problems with France's view of Iraq than there are varieties of blue-veined cheese. It rests on a vast inferiority complex, and on inappropriate nostalgia. Why do French politicians assume that their companies cannot compete in a free-market environment? And why does France have such low esteem for its own model of governance that it's better off decayed and corrupted - as it is in today's Iraq - than it would be reformed - say, under an Iraq rebuilt through U.S., British, French, and other countries' cooperation?

France's resistance to joining the coalition on Iraq betrays Paris's sense that history has passed it by, that post-Saddam, France will be shut out of Iraq forever. It was fitting that just as the Iraq issue reached a fevered pitch, President Jacques Chirac was lecturing on good governance in Paris African heads of state - as if to console himself with evidence that France hasn't lost everything it once owned.

It's a shame, really, that France's Cartesian political minds cannot conceive of a future composed of "this, and" economic and political models rather than "this, or" models. Until they do, they will be unreliable partners: In Iraq today, and perhaps in Asia and elsewhere in the future, they will reject the prospect of joint solutions as defeats, and prefer to pick up their boules and go home.

Editor's note: A version of this article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal Europe on 25 February 2003.

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