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France: Few Openly Criticize Government's Stance On Iraq

  • Joel Blocker

For the past few months, France has led the diplomatic fight against a military assault to depose Saddam Hussein, putting it in direct confrontation with the United States, which now has about a quarter of a million troops poised to attack Iraq. This week, French President Jacques Chirac threatened to use his country's veto power in the United Nations Security Council to kill any resolution that might provide Washington with UN authorization to use military force. Within France, polls consistently show more than 80 percent approval of Chirac's policy, with most of the country's politicians, political analysts, and media of a similar mind. There are, however, a few notable exceptions.

Paris, 14 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- There is little open opposition in France to President Jacques Chirac's strong resistance to military action in Iraq. And the few exceptions to that rule only serve to demonstrate the strength of support by the public, parliament, and experts of the government's stance.

According to many public-opinion surveys over the past several months, more than four out of five French citizens are opposed to any military action against Iraq. If anything, the number of opponents have grown somewhat in recent weeks.

During a National Assembly (lower house of parliament) debate on France's Iraq policy late last month, only a few members of Chirac's Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP) group openly expressed doubts about the wisdom of France employing its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to nullify any resolution that might provide the United States with support for a military operation.

Even some mildly skeptical deputies -- notably, UMP chief and former Prime Minister Alain Juppe -- couched their doubts about the wisdom of France using its veto power in mild, often ambiguous, terms. There was no vote taken at the end of the debate.

The Socialist and other leftist opposition to Chirac's conservative government has lined up behind the president almost unanimously on Iraq. The only notable defection has come from former Socialist minister Bernard Kouchner, who later served as the UN's first high commissioner for Kosovo. Although critical of U.S. diplomacy and tactics, Kouchner called an attack on Saddam Hussein's regime a "just war" that would eliminate an intolerable despot responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of his own people.

The French media are almost entirely supportive of Chirac's policy, as are most commentators, again with a few exceptions, notably Jean-Francois Revel, whose most recent book is a history of anti-Americanism in France. Only rarely does one hear criticism of France's Iraq policy on radio call-in programs or read it in the letters columns or editorial pages of newspapers.

Some French analysts note that there has been little critical opinion expressed by their colleagues since January, when Chirac is said to have made up his mind to oppose all military action against Iraq. These analysts say that in many cases, voicing criticism would be considered a sign of disloyalty. They suggest that a number of their colleagues are engaging in what amounts to self-censorship.

Strong, sometimes virulent criticism of U.S. strategy and tactics has been commonplace in France's media and among its political analysts for some time. One of the more moderate exponents of this point of view is Yves Boyer, deputy director of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research.

Boyer asks: "Is there a possibility of reaching [international] consensus on this crisis [over Iraq]? I must say with some harshness that [the United States] has rarely shown itself as ideological and, at the same time, as fluctuating in promulgating its war aims. In fact, what kind of war is it a matter of today? Is it a matter of destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction? Is it a matter of initiating regime change? Is it a matter of redoing the map of the [Middle] East, beginning with reconstructing Iraq on the model of Western democracy? In short, [this has been an exercise in U.S.] 'variable geometry,' which has changed according to [prevailing] circumstances."

Boyer also faults the U.S. and British press for what he considers their contempt for, and lack of understanding of, the French position on Iraq. He made no comment on the French press's strong criticisms of U.S. policy, except to say it is "natural during a hot crisis."

Etienne de Durand, an analyst at the French Foreign Policy Institute in Paris sees the key issues somewhat differently. "When one considers what has happened in the past several months, [it is clear] that the crisis officially began with the American president's speech to the UN in September [2002], although it had been in preparation for some time before and actually started with his State of the Union address in January 2002. I think one can say that [since then], French diplomacy, like American diplomacy, has made errors, several errors," de Durand said.

De Durand said that first, there was a problem of bad timing. In France in the spring of 2002 -- as well as in Germany -- there was a preoccupation with elections. In France's presidential elections of April and May 2002, far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen challenged Chirac in a runoff vote. De Durand said this preoccupied many in France, particularly the country's leaders. "In other words," he said, "both France and Germany were six months behind the American calendar [for Iraq]. But when the Americans made diplomatic contacts with the Europeans last spring -- the spring of 2002 -- beginning with Iraq and what they wanted to do there, the French at that moment were simply not prepared to take part in the discussions. Basically, they didn't even know who would be president and what would be French policy and the political composition of the new parliamentary majority in France. As for [German Chancellor] Gerhard Schroeder, he was conducting what seemed at the time to be a difficult re-election effort, although he finally won out by a slim margin." Thus, De Durand said, both countries reacted a bit belatedly to U.S. policy shifts on Iraq.

De Durand noted that the United States and France cooperated last November in drafting Security Council Resolution 1441 on Iraq. That resolution warned of "serious consequences" if Hussein's regime did not disarm.

But each country, de Durand pointed out, interpreted the resolution as it saw fit. He said that France's position, determined by Chirac, was formulated between last November and January of this year -- calling that an important "time lag" between Paris and Washington.

De Durand thinks that if France had communicated its current opposition to a war with Iraq to the United States in the middle of last year, Washington would probably not have taken its case to the UN. In that event, he continued, the current diplomatic conflict between the two countries, as well the different crises they have engendered -- at the European Union and NATO, as well as at the UN -- might have been avoided.

They were, he said, "not really necessary."

De Durand added, however, that the Americans were also at fault because they sought what he calls "excessive legitimacy" in taking their case to the UN. In fact, he said, Washington's position had already been set in stone and "nothing was really negotiable." On both sides, he concluded, errors were made, and each country's diplomatic efforts deserve to be faulted.

De Durand and Boyer disagree about the long-term effects of the current crises in the European Union, NATO, and the UN. De Durand said the EU has clearly been affected by its internal splits over Iraq. But he believes it has sufficient other concerns -- notably, enlargement to the east, the drafting of a new constitution, and the creation of an effective common defense and security policy -- to ensure that in coming years the dispute over Iraq will not be of paramount importance.

De Durand thinks, too, that NATO will probably survive its current turbulence because it has a continuing political, as well military, role to play. But much will depend, he said, on Washington's attitude. During the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, he recalls, the United States often acted militarily on its own, bypassing or paralleling the NATO command structure.

As for the UN, de Durand said that it, too, will survive the current Iraq crisis intact. He noted that the Security Council played no significant role during the almost 45 years of the Cold War. And when it came to acting in Kosovo, he added, Washington and its NATO allies avoided the Security Council for fear of a Russian veto.

Boyer is less optimistic about the future of the EU and NATO. He said that since last summer, the Iraq crisis has completely dominated the international scene and caused "enormous damage." He calls Iraq "the mother of all crises" -- at NATO and the EU, in trans-Atlantic relations, and in the internal affairs of some EU members, notably Britain.

According to Boyer, the Iraq crisis has revealed real differences inside NATO, with France, Germany, Belgium, and Turkey challenging U.S. policy. He expressed some doubts about whether the Atlantic alliance will survive in its present form, or at all.

Similarly, Boyer believes the EU is undergoing what he calls a "serious crisis." He said the Iraq crisis has brought to light certain "internal contradictions" in the EU, particularly the conflict between members, such as France, who seek a politically and perhaps militarily strong EU, and others who want the enlarged union to be nothing more than a huge internal market.

Boyer sees the renewed French-German alliance as the heart of a future strong EU.

As for the UN, Boyer regards it as the only true representative of the entire international community, in the future, as well in the present. For him, the UN's efforts to disarm Iraq therefore have legitimacy that the imminent U.S. military action will lack.

No one can say which of the two French analysts is more perceptive in his analysis or more likely to prove accurate in his predictions. But their differences do demonstrate one thing: The apparently monolithic character of French expert opinion on Iraq may, in part at least, be only skin deep.