It is an old truism, so ancient that it can probably be traced as far back as Aristotle, that politics is not an exact science. Indeed, we could say of it what Napoleon, who knew a thing or two about politics, once said with admirable concision of the Art of War: that it is “tout d’exécution”—entirely a matter of execution. What counts, decisively, is not what politicians say but what they do. But, not being free agents—a truly free human being has never existed—they must, to be successful, adapt themselves to circumstances; and circumstances have a stubborn way of not obeying the whims of those who assume the right to command them.
The recent tiff between bicentenary allies France and the United States over the attitude that each should adopt toward the Iraq of Saddam Hussein offers—or, perhaps I should say, will one day offer—a classic example of how politicians make things more difficult for themselves and others by pursuing a preset course of action on the assumption that, no matter what the outcome might be, they are in the right and those who dare to disagree with them are in the wrong. Being persuaded that one is right is, of course, something absolutely visceral, subintellectual, in every human being—the search for certainty being, as Nietzsche so penetratingly understood, the very essence of the human condition. But the fact remains that this certitude of being right, of being the possessor of “the truth”—not to say, when dangerously magnified, “the Truth”—is an egotistical prejudice, one which thoughtful people strive to combat by reading the Socratic dialogues of Plato.
The recent battle of wits and wills fought out between George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac was essentially a clash of contending egos. Nothing indeed could have more pathetically illustrated the selfish nature of this clash of wills than the determination of the apparent victor, George W. Bush, and of his closest advisors, even including his ambivalent secretary of state, Colin Powell, to punish France and the French for having dared to contest the geopolitical wisdom of the President of the United States.
The dramatic personalization of the conflict of opinions between the leaders of the United States and France has obscured the fact that negative sentiments about the unilateral “brutality of the Bush team”—as Hubert Védrines, the former Socialist foreign minister put it on April 24—have been even more categorically expressed in other European countries. An opinion poll organized by an ITOGI TV weekly review in Moscow shortly after the start of the war in Iraq revealed that 80 percent of Russia’s intelligentsia not only disapproved of the American invasion but were even hoping that Saddam Hussein would deal the invaders an humiliating defeat.
To the best of my knowledge, no similar poll has yet been undertaken in France, where intellectuals have recently been subjected to considerable criticism, perhaps because the French do not really need an “intelligentsia,” being, almost by definition, a nation of thinkers, according to the celebrated Cartesian credo, Cogito, ergo sum, and Pascal’s famous definition of man as a “thinking reed.” As the French humorist Pierre Daninos noted years ago: “In England an imbecile is simply an imbecile; in France he is an imbecile who reasons.”
I doubt that as high a proportion of French intellectuals would have been willing to back Saddam Hussein. What is certain, thanks to an opinion poll undertaken in late March by France’s leading television channel, TF1, and the afternoon daily, Le Monde, is that 78 percent of those interviewed declared themselves opposed to the war in Iraq, while only 17 percent were for it; 65 percent believed that the United States was responsible for provoking hostilities, and only 34 percent were more or less favorably disposed toward the war aims of the United States and Great Britain. A bare majority of those polled (53 percent) actually favored an “Allied” victory, while 33 percent wanted Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to win! Jacques Chirac’s antiwar stance was massively approved, particularly and paradoxically among “left-wing” voters (normally opposed to his supposedly “conservative” policies at home), the level of approval even exceeding 90 percent for several weeks.
In Spain, where anti-American sentiment enjoys even greater support—the Iberian ego still being ruffled by the humiliating defeats of 1898—92 percent of those interviewed for Madrid’s El País in late March declared themselves opposed to the war in Iraq; 78 percent believed that it was “illegal”; 88 percent, that it was unfair (given America’s crushing military superiority); and 44 percent were persuaded that the real American motive for invading Iraq was to lay hands on her petroleum resources. The Italians, for their part—and this notwithstanding the pro-war approval of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi—outdid the Spaniards in their condemnation of the war, invariably topping the 90-percent level in polls.
Statistics, as is well known, provide the bare bones of any sociopolitical situation. Of more interest is the vital flesh and blood of individual opinions, of individual protests. By early April, something utterly incredible seemed to be taking place in France—this Gallic land of proud diversity, whose ruggedly individualistic farmers have managed to invent more than 250 different kinds of cheese. For once, the French seemed to be speaking with one voice—a voice sternly condemning American “unilateralism,” the Bush administration’s vision of a world regimented by a new, God-blessed and God-sanctioned hyperpower, ready and able to impose its postmodern solutions wherever evil might seem to be raising its ugly head.
In a fascinating article published in Le Monde, Bruno Latour, a French professor of sociology who had been giving lectures on the history of science at Harvard, expressed the dismay he had felt after returning to France to discover how suddenly univocal his homeland had become. “The American media,” he wrote,
are divided, the French media almost unanimous. Every day, on the other side of the Atlantic, incisive and vengeful editorials, anxious and aggressive TV panels, vehement demonstrations have for the past two months debated the wisdom and risks of the war in Iraq. In France it seems that the most disputatious nation on earth has at last found a common cause: “We are all Chiraquians” has replaced the famous “We are all Americans” of Jean-Pierre Colombani [words written in a Le Monde editorial in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, assault on Manhattan’s World Trade Center].
Latour’s conclusion, on the basis of what he had seen on French television and read in the newspapers, was that
from a legitimate critique of a gang of adventurers [i.e., Bush and Company] we have slipped towards the abandonment of our alliances . . .
French quasi-unanimity may perhaps derive from another source . . . the progressive replacement of political discourse by moral posturing . . . Having partly abandoned our sovereignty without having recovered it as a simple part of a Europe that does not yet exist—and which, because of the present crisis, may never exist—we are hemmed in between two forms of public discourse: the old one, based on sovereignty and which accepted the risks involved, and a purely moral one, whose sole principle of reality is that of virtue, since we have thrust upon others the job of defining relationships of strength.
In the same issue of Le Monde (April 5), André Glucksmann—along with the more flamboyant Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of the “new philosophers” who bravely took up the cudgels for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the early 1970’s—caustically ridiculed the “pacifism” of the new unholy alliance of antiwarmongers:
France-Germany-Russia-China-Syria—the “camp of peace” intones the great hymn of “law” against force. Moscow walks off with the kettle-drum prize of hypocrisy, as the only state today able to boast of having totally levelled a capital. Peking ransacks Tibet. Syria occupies Lebanon. Jolly company, which under the appellation of “international law” glorifies a state’s unlimited right to act as it pleases on its lands . . . Reduced to a principle of absolute sovereignty, “international law” in effect grants Saddam permission to poison-gas his own people, Putin to transform “anti-terrorist operations” in the Caucasus into genocide. And why, retrospectively, not grant to the Hutus—who form the majority in Rwanda—the right to exterminate the Tutsis? . . .
For the first time the West-West rift is cleaving world politics, threatening the construction of Europe, ruining NATO, and paralyzing international organizations. Stereotypes are flourishing in clusters. Illiterate, cowboy-minded, fanatically religious and pragmatically cynical, governed by a sparrow-brain and a clan of falcons, America, full of childish idealism, thirsts for oil. It is a hegemony in full expansion, an empire in the final stages of decadence . . . Never mind the contradictory arguments. Bush is Danger number 1, and Saddam, no matter how deadly he may be allowed to seem, is fiddlesticks.
Long before these disabused lines were written by an “humanitarian” idealist who does not pull his punches, a number of less incandescent observers were beginning to worry over the increasingly intransigent “No war, no matter what!” attitude of Jacques Chirac and his excessively dynamic, globe-trotting minister of foreign affairs, Dominique de Villepin. “Aren’t they perhaps overdoing it?” was the provocative question raised on a cover of Claude Imbert’s Le Point weekly. A number of French parliamentarians belonging to the recently created UMP (Union pour la Majorité présidentielle), a kind of umbrella organization of neo-Gaullist, non-Gaullist, and even anti-Gaullist politicians that was hastily put together last year by former prime minister Alain Juppé to provide Jacques Chirac with a solid parliamentary majority, began to feel misgivings over the anti-American “drift” in French diplomacy, now so marked that it was encouraging French Muslims, anarchists, a variety of left-wing hotheads, as well as nationalistic and antisemitic extremists of the far right to take part in street demonstrations denouncing the warmonger Bush and praising the peace-loving Saddam Hussein. One of these parliamentarians was Pierre Lelouche, generally regarded as the UMP’s leading military strategist. In an article published in Le Figaro, he and five other National Assembly deputies recalled how isolated they had felt in the midst of the irrational antiwar fever that had suddenly gripped France and how vain had been their warnings against the pursuit of an excessively dogmatic diplomacy that was likely to be counterproductive.
We also said that by declaring in advance that in all circumstances we rejected war, we could only encourage Saddam Hussein to continue to play for time. We said that such an attitude would not prevent the war, but would inevitably lead to its being conducted outside the framework of the UN: the exact
opposite of the aim pursued by French diplomacy. For having taken this stand, a very solitary one at that, for having reminded people of the million deaths caused by Saddam Hussein himself, we were regarded at times as “Atlanticists,” at others as partisans of an abominable “war-camp.” The war once started, we witnessed an incredible wave of disinformation wash over the country, aimed at making France the herald of the “camp of peace,” over and against the inhuman actions of the Americans and the British. We saw the streets of Paris fill up with Iraqi banners, to cries of “Vive Saddam, mort aux Juifs.”
We saw our diplomacy, yesterday based on national independence but also solidarity with our allies, caricatured as being a form of neutrality tinged with pacifism and stale whiffs of anti-Americanism. To our great shame we saw one third of the French, in public-opinion polls, hope for a Saddam victory, and still others profane in particularly sordid conditions the military cemetery of Etaples, in northern France.
Fortunately, a salutary halt was called to such excesses. The President of the Republic wrote to Queen Elisabeth to tell her of the debt France owed to British soldiers fallen on our soil . . .
One week later (April 15), André Glucks-mann returned to the attack, joined by novelist Pascal Bruckner (a lucid observer of the United States) and film director Romain Goupil. In Le Monde, they deplored the hysteria that had gripped France and its finest minds, welding 90 percent of them into a “quasi Soviet atmosphere” of “collective intoxication.” Among other examples of narrow intolerance, they cited the scandalous example (“of a rare obscenity”) of a famous French singer angrily getting up and stalking off the stage of a TV variety show because the producer had chosen to include an anti-Saddam film director among the guests.
One is forced to admit that anti-Americanism is not a circumstantial accident or simple reticence concerning the administration in Washington, but the credo of a policy which welds people together, despite their divergences: the National Front and the Greens, socialists and conservatives, communists, sovereigntists . . . On the right, as on the left, rare have been those who have not yielded to this nationalism of imbeciles, which is always a symptom of resentment and decline.
How anti-American are the French? Stated in such bald terms, the question is virtually unanswerable. The answer, moreover, varies from one week to the next; for nothing, except perhaps fashion, is more intrinsically volatile than an opinion publicly expressed. The question is even misleading, not to say misled, for it assumes that the French, a nation of dogmatists, are constant in their likes and dislikes, in their personal antipathies. Take a specific example: those who, for philosophical reasons, should logically be anti-American. The number of extreme right-wing royalists, who despise republics as well as revolutions and whose philosophical mentors are Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and, closer to modern times, Charles Maurras, probably do not exceed, or even reach, one percent of the total population of France (roughly 60 million souls)—and even they (I have known some of them) are not necessarily anti-American. Far more numerous are the extremists of the left—which, in France, include half a dozen Trotskyist, neoanarchistic, crazily utopian factions whose vociferous complaints and anti-establishment rhetoric helped to fissure the Socialist government’s so-called “plural majority” and, thus, to destroy Prime Minister Lionel Jospin during the fateful first round of last year’s presidential elections. But this does not mean that all of them are, for ideological reasons, viscerally anti-American. Many of them drink Coca-Cola, enjoy jazz and rap music, and even smoke American cigarettes.
This is even truer of the hodge-podge legion of malcontents—everything from stevedores, textile workers, disgruntled peasants, hard-pressed artisans and small-enterprise managers, frightened housewives and exasperated husbands (worried about suburban and even urban insecurity), butchers, bakers, bankers, and even lawyers—who voted for that consummate rabble-rouser, ultranationalist, and Chirac-hater, Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose anti-American outbursts have varied wildly, depending on the way in which he is being treated by American publications and TV. (A classic example of what deserves to be called “pictorial vilification” was Time’s cover story, in which this fair-haired Breton was made vaguely to resemble Adolf Hitler.) Many, if not most, of the 17 percent of the electorate who voted for this superpatriotic demagogue during that crucial first round of the election were registering a vote of protest, were voting less for Le Pen than voting against the all-too-familiar, slick, business-as-usual “operators” of the French parliamentary system.
In May 2002, the SOFRES (one of France’s leading public-opinion pulse-takers) conducted a poll, which revealed that only ten percent of those interviewed felt real antipathy toward the United States. From this, historian Michel Winock concluded that anti-Americanism in France was not a “popular sentiment” but a characteristic “of a certain part of the elite.”
Stated slightly differently, for certain French intellectuals and others, expressing doubts about the United States and anti-American sentiments has long been a fashionable way of proclaiming one’s commendably progressive, anticapitalist sentiments. During the war years of 1941-45, which he spent in New York working for Elmer David’s OWI (Office of War Information), the famous French surrealist author André Breton used to spend a lot of time inveighing against the United States and darkly predicting that she would, after the defeat of Nazism, become an intolerant, fascist country.
In his exhaustive book on this subject, L’obsession anti-américaine—which also covers anti-Americanism in countries besides France—Jean-François Revel cites the pertinent case of Hubert Beuve-Méry, who, shortly after the liberation of France, decided to found a left-wing Christian newspaper called Le Monde. Even before he could achieve this ambition, he wrote in May 1944:
The Americans constitute a veritable danger for France. A danger quite different from the one that Germany threatens and with which the Russians could eventually threaten us . . . The Americans can prevent us from carrying out a necessary revolution, and their materialism does not even have the tragic grandeur of the materialism of the totalitarians. If they retain a veritable cult for the idea of Liberty, they do not feel the need to free themselves from the servitude of capitalism.
This idea that it should be the global mission of France—the homeland of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man—to uphold not only revolutionary but nonmaterialistic and anticapitalist ideals has persisted down to the present. The nationalism of Charles de Gaulle was simply one of its metamorphic variations; we should never forget that his long-term aim was to transcend the “contradictions” of capitalism through a state-sponsored “association” of workers and managers. The foremost champion of this view today is probably Regis Débray, a personal friend of François Mitterrand’s wife, Danielle, who so admired Che Guevara that he traveled all the way to Bolivia to join his guerrilleros (and came close to losing his life in this adventure) and who recently surprised those who should have known better by turning into a latter-day Gaullist.
It is almost certainly no accident that, in addition to Jean-François Revel, who for years has been exposing and ridiculing the residual utopianism of France’s left-wing intellectuals, it should be such anti-Soviet thinkers as André Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy who recently have been warning against the dangers of French anti-Americanism. Just as in the early 1970’s, when they were bucking the tide of conventional pro-Soviet “neutrality”—the ne plus ultra summit of intellectual hypocrisy—so, today, they are bucking the tide of anti-American sneers, expressed in a hundred different ways, from the provocative “Iraq—a new Vietnam?” chosen as a cover for a weekend edition of the Figaro Magazine to the satirical Canard enchaîné’s front-page taunt that, in recently liberated Baghdad, “the Koran is coming back more quickly than electricity!”
When, in the immediate wake of September 11, Jean-Pierre Colombani had the courage to write that “We are all of us Americans!” he was promptly confronted with a minirevolt from certain radical members of Le Monde’s staff. Much the same thing happened when Robert Hue, the gentle secretary general of what remains of the French Communist Party, proposed that a minute of silence pay tribute to those who had died in the cataclysmic crash of the World Trade Center. In this case, it would probably be an exaggeration to establish a strict cause-and-effect relationship; the fact remains, however, that the Communist Party’s 3.4 percent vote in last year’s presidential election was the lowest recorded since 1945.
Sensationalism, to parody Samuel Johnson, is the first refuge of a scoundrel. In July of last year—nine months after the cataclysmic event—a French “investigative” reporter named Thierry Meyssan produced what he thought was a journalistic blockbuster: an anthology piece of anti-American debunking. In a book entitled 11 Septembre 2001—L’effroyable imposture (The Frightful Imposture), he argued, against the overwhelming mass of visible evidence, that the bombing of the Pentagon on that fateful Tuesday was not the work of Al Qaeda fanatics but had, in reality, been engineered by the top brass in the Pentagon to provoke a national uproar, with vengeful calls for rapid military retaliation. What was surprising was not that the author was able to find a publisher for this grotesque fantasy but the anything-but-naive readiness of French radio and TV to offer this journalistic contraband a maximum of publicity. Over-night, it became a national bestseller.
It is too early to say exactly what will be the long-term consequences for the Middle East of the war in Iraq. No matter what the ultimate outcome may be, however, the French, in general, and Jacques Chirac, in particular, are likely to suffer. For, by assuming an excessively intransigent position, Chirac and his foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, in effect maneuvered themselves into a no-win position. Should they be proved wrong in believing that George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s war of aggression against Saddam Hussein and his iniquitous regime was certain to lead to further chaos in the Middle East—Chirac once said that “the last thing this region needs is another war”—they will wear the sorry look of stubborn gamblers who backed the wrong horse. On the other hand, should Chirac and his foreign minister be proved right, they are likely further to exasperate Bush and the war-loving hawks of his entourage for being made to look like a bull in a china shop. Nothing more exasperates a willful man than to be proved wrong.
To be proved right will not, furthermore, obscure the fact that, compared to the overwhelming military might of the United States, France is now a weakling—and, sad to say, almost of her own volition. For this, the Socialists, who, during mostly of the past 20 years, have misruled France, are largely to blame—most for having taught the French to be lazy and to believe that a truly “progressive” people should not have to work for more than 35 hours per week. It would probably be unfair to place the blame exclusively on the Socialists for having chosen to construct an ultramodern aircraft carrier—proudly named the Charles de Gaulle—that was such a marvel of state-of-the-art technology that it could propel itself with only two, instead of the usual four, propellers. The extra strain imposed on them was such that, on its first trans-Atlantic voyage, one of the propellers broke, and the stricken vessel had to limp home for repairs. It has been pointed out by experts that, for the same construction costs, two more reliable aircraft carriers could have been built at the independent shipyards of St. Nazaire rather than at the state-controlled Arsenal of Brest, which won the contract because of the influence wielded on a leftist government by the Arsenal’s communist trade union.
What, more than anything else, has catapulted the United States to her exalted elevation as this planet’s one and only superpower has been the enormous sums Americans have been willing to invest in scientific and technological research. The recent war in Iraq was, above all, a triumph of military technology. And what is alarming for Europe in general, and France in particular, is that, notwithstanding the economic success of the euro, the “superiority gap” between Europe and the United States has, in scientific and military matters, been inexorably increasing. France today spends five times less per capita on scientific research than the United States, and she has even sunk to 13th place compared to her European neighbors. Yet, dead to the repeated protests and warnings of hundreds of France’s worried scientists—the Nobel Prize-winning biologist, François Jacob, has even spoken of a course of “national suicide”—the conservative Chirac-Raffarin government has chosen to reduce investments (as much as 50 percent) in the vital field of scientific research.
The consequence of such a shortsighted policy can only be to accelerate a growing gap between French pretensions as a “world power” and its de facto decline. This is what André Glucksmann, Pascel Bruckner, and Romain Goupil meant when they referred to the symptoms of “resentment and decline” that lie at the root of French anti-Americanism. It is an unhealthy situation—and not only for the French. In the long run, it is as mentally warping for the French to resent American superiority as it is for Americans to despise the “inferior” French.