Shortly after the 11 September terrorist attacks, the respected left-of-center French daily "Le Monde" published a front-page editorial titled "We Are All Americans." Written by Jean-Marie Colombani, the paper's director since 1994, the editorial expressed solidarity with the American people and opened a passionate debate in France between those expressing similar feelings and inveterate anti-Americans who saw no reason to change their views. Colombani has published a new book about the fallout of the terrorist attacks. RFE/RL correspondent Joel Blocker recently met with him at "Le Monde's" offices in Paris to discuss his views and the reception they've received.
Paris, 12 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In his new book, titled "All Americans? -- The World After September 11, 2001," Jean-Marie Colombani begins by restating his view that the "Le Monde" editorial of 13 September was "the manifestation of a necessary and absolute compassion" for the American people.
Then, in a series of short but pithy chapters, he reflects on the effects of the terrorist attacks on the United States -- of which he has his own criticisms -- and the shock waves they set off around the world: the resurgance of the Israel-Palestinian conflict; Islamic fundamentalism, which he bluntly characterizes as "fascist" and "Nazi"; and the effects of the 11 September attacks on French intellectuals.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Colombani first discussed the public reaction to his editorial as reflected in the unusually high volume of mail to the newspaper.
"The problem [in evaluating the letters to the paper about the editorial] is that at 'Le Monde' the mail about important events is always quite abundant. On [the editorial], there was perhaps a bit more mail than usual. From people who said, 'We're not American,' 'Why aren't we all Palestinians?' 'Why aren't we all Afghans?' 'Why aren't we all Rwandans?' etc. -- even though those problems were not the subject of the editorial. But generally speaking, I did not sense my feelings were different from, or in contrast to, the feelings expressed elsewhere in France at the time -- for that matter, not only in France but throughout Europe, the European Union," Colombani says.
But Colombani says later that solidarity between the United States and the European Union began to break down. He said that was because of divergent views over what steps should be taken after the war in Afghanistan had defeated, if not eliminated, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
"There was strong disagreement on that issue between the Americans and the Europeans. The Europeans believed that the Americans -- the new American government -- ought to have concentrated on the problems in the Middle East, while the Americans seemed to want to pass immediately from Afghanistan to Iraq. That idea seemed a hazardous [strategy] in Europe, and later more and more difficult to realize as the situation in the Near East grew worse [and forced the Americans to intervene]," Colombani says.
Why, Colombani was asked, did the administration of President George W. Bush wait so long to reassume a major U.S. role as intermediary in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? The paper's editor suspects that what he calls "ideology" may have played a role.
"The government of George Bush Junior -- a government elected [to replace] the Democrats, and elected with difficulty -- did not represent an easy transition from the left to the right. The right was particularly concerned with marking the end of the [former President Bill] Clinton era. The [Bush administration's] attitude toward the Middle East was part of its concern with underlining the end of the Clinton era. It's worth recalling that Clinton was highly popular in the European Union, especially in countries governed by the left, a popularity also due to the fact that he made an all-out effort to achieve peace in the Near East," Colombani says.
Colombani says the recent escalation of the fighting between Palestinians and Israelis has reimposed what he calls its own "implacable logic." Now, with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to the region, the European and U.S. positions are drawing closer.
"I was going to say," he adds, "that the American, European, and Russian positions are getting closer."
How does Colombani reconcile his outspoken criticisms of certain U.S. policies and practices -- such as the death penalty -- with an equally outspoken stance against traditional anti-Americanism?
"Because I think that posing the problem in terms of anti-Americanism no longer makes any sense. We live in an increasingly globalized world. If we speak of an enemy these days, we mean an enemy like Al-Qaeda or the terrorism practiced by the Taliban -- that is, a common enemy. So there is no longer ... [the] world is no longer obedient to the criteria or cleavages that we experienced during the last years of the 20th century," Colombani says.
That means, Colombani says, that to call the United States an "empire of evil" is sheer nonsense. But, he notes, within the growing anti-globalization movement, there is an increasing tendency to label America that way. He sees that tendency as the remains of a Soviet-era reading of the world, which, he says, is no longer relevant.
The danger today, Colombani says, is rather that of a "unilateralist" America. He says Europeans see this as the "new face of [American] isolationism." That's far more dangerous in a globalized world, he believes, than an America that is active in every region of the world. That's why, he says, anti-Americanism has ceased to be relevant.
"That doesn't mean that anti-Americanism no longer exists. It doesn't mean, either, that we shouldn't look closely at how America behaves. But that's quite normal. When, for example, one lives in a normal democracy -- inside France, inside other European countries -- one has the right to criticize the government if one is the opposition or to criticize the opposition if one is a part of the government," Colombani says.
Still, Colombani concludes, both Americans and Europeans must give up what he calls their "caricatures" of each other. The European caricature of the United States as the center of evil, he says, began on the extreme right and was later adopted by the extreme left. That doesn't mean, he adds, that America is the "empire of good" either.
As for the United States, Colombani says, it should stop seeing, and advertising, itself as headmaster of the school, with President George W. Bush as the teacher presiding over the class. He says that every time something doesn't go right in the school, attention is focused on the "bad student" -- that is, the French.
For Colombani, that, too, is a caricature that ultimately makes no sense.