Hill of Beans: French Kiss-Off

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Americans have tended to ignore simmering European discontent with the Bush foreign policy over the last few months. We have continued to do so even after a State of the Union address that ticked certain Euros off mightily and a Colin Powell presentation at the UN that impressed them not at all. My priorities last weekend, for instance, were not the shifting positions of European statesmen but the progress (and the racket) that a bunch of repairmen were making on the floor above me. My reckoning was that the outcome of plumbing work is always more touch-and-go than the outcome of intra-alliance bickering. The Europeans complain and then fall into line. It’s a law of nature. To crib from the old joke book, the European Union is America’s "geostrategic rival of the future"—and always will be.
But there were a couple of events over the weekend that indicate this Eurosis is of a much more virulent strain than the type we’ve had to deal with any time since WWII—at least the strain of it that has struck Germany and France. On Saturday, Donald Rumsfeld was appearing at a press conference with his German counterpart, Peter Struck, when a journalist sandbagged the pair of them with a question. He asked Rumsfeld for his reaction to a new "Franco-German plan" to resolve the Iraq crisis that was due to be announced in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel this week. Rumsfeld said that the existence of such a plan was a new one on him, and turned the question over to Struck. Struck didn’t deny that there was such a plan. He merely said he wasn’t terribly keen to talk about it at just that moment. The plan, does, in fact, exist, and its details emerged over the weekend. Its main feature is a massive UN occupying force—so massive that it would seem to require the resignation of Saddam Hussein as a precondition for being put into effect. Which seems to bring us back to Square One. But the unworkability of the plan did not make it any more palatable to Rumsfeld.

A few weeks ago, Rumsfeld famously dismissed the French and the Germans as "old Europe"—merely two biggish countries in a federation that will soon include twenty-five. More recently, he has included Germany on a list of three countries—the others are Cuba and Libya—that are unwilling to help in the war effort at all. A battle continues to rage for the sympathies of Europe’s other twenty-three members. France and Germany have been routed. The United States has always had Britain at its side. But the letter of solidarity written by Blair and seven other statesmen was a slap in the face to the Franco-German alliance. In the French papers, these countries were referred to as the "Gang of Eight." But that didn’t seem to be scaring anybody, because the eight-country letter was followed by another breaking of ranks. A bunch of Eastern European countries calling themselves the "Vilnius Ten" issued a similar communique. That doesn’t leave many countries left to march to the Franco-German drummer, and as of this writing, they seem to have picked up exactly one: Belgium. Even the Dutch, wedged between the two countries, have not got on board. Their new center-right government did not sign the Blair letter, but only because they are newly elected and still in the process of forming a government. (One French strategist I saw in Washington recently called the Paris-Berlin alliance the "Axis of Irrelevance.")

New Europe may be running roughshod over Paris and Berlin just now, but this doesn’t mean French president Jacques Chirac and German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder are out of cards to play. Along with Belgium, they have been obstructing NATO’s movement of materiel into the Iraq region, so much so that NATO secretary-general Lord Robertson has been scrambling to find ways to resolve what looks like a major crisis. And last week, the Netherlands reportedly took the extraordinary step of shipping Patriot missiles to Turkey country-to-country, circumventing usual NATO procedures. This appeared to U.S. officials to be a sign that the French and German opposition might be about to move from the rhetorical level to the concrete one.

It is important to remember when looking at situations like this that the Germans and French are not doing what they’re doing simply in order to be pains in the ass. They sincerely believe that rushing into war in Iraq is a bad idea. But that doesn’t mean they’re opposed to us for identical reasons. The French have long looked at "Europe"—i.e. the inchoate European Union—as their vehicle to regain their lost great-power status. With the only other great continental power in the EU, Germany, frozen out of geostrategic ambitions by its history and the rest of Europe small and fragmented, France has always stood a fair chance of being the heart and brains of the EU.

Now that chance looks like it is not going to pan out, for several reasons: first, Europe has grown too big for France to run; second, France is so dependent (for domestic political reasons) on milking European institutions for agricultural and other subsidies that it has grown unpopular within the EU; and third, Germany has decided it wants a bigger role.

This last reason is why Germany and France have been driven together in a kind of shotgun wedding over the past few weeks. Gerhard Schroeder’s breaking with Bush’s Iraq policy was insincere in the sense that he has no vision of his own about Iraq; but it was also sincere, in that he (and his voters) have long been looking for some pretext to break from their dependence on the United States and affirm themselves a "normal country" again. In brief, Schroeder’s unwillingness to go to war in Iraq, although advanced under a pacifist pretext, is actually a nationalist move.

German nationalism, of course, however ultimately benign, scares the bejesus out of the world. That is why it needs France so badly. France is Germany’s designated driver. And that has led to a bizarre sidelight of the Iraq situation, in which the foreign policy for 140 million of Europe’s 400-some-odd is being directed by one of the stranger characters on the world scene: French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin.

Pretty much all I knew about de Villepin until recent days is that he wrote one of the most pompous books about la gloire de la France ever penned. It’s called The Cry of the Gargoyle, and it sold pretty well when it came out last spring. De Villepin is deeply, deeply French. Americans who assume this means he is a relativistic, intellectually constipated foreign minister in the mold of Warren Christopher do not know France. De Villepin is of a Napoleonic cast of mind, and if one were looking for an American secretary of state to whom he could be compared, it would not be Warren Christopher but Al Haig.

De Villepin is in hot water in France just now, because the mini-intervention in Ivory Coast is going badly and is getting bad reviews around the world. Ivory Coast is another topic I haven’t exactly earned a doctorate in, although I do know that the Gs are silent in "Laurent Gbagbo." But I’ll take the word of the French press that the so-called Marcoussis Accord—the strategy of helping the rebels wring concessions out of Gbagbo in exchange for a pair of vocalized consonants—was de Villepin’s idea. Now that this strategy has resulted in Ivorians appearing on international television carrying signs reading, "Help us, Mr. Bush! Chirac is a new Bin Laden!" it’s fairly open season on de Villepin in French newspapers and magazines.

An absolutely dazzling profile of de Villepin that appeared last week in the newsweekly L’Express gave a huge sampling of de Villepin’s "I’m in charge" Al Haigery. "This ambassador is an idiot!" he recently said in front of some of Chirac’s top advisers. "Who named him?" He described his predecessor Hubert Védrine (who, for all his anti-American truculence, is among the most brilliant European ministers of the past decade) as "no genius." He explains his cowboy approach to the Ivory Coast by saying, "It’s by taking the initiative that we have the best chance of succeeding... One must always take the risk of peace." But, I hear you ask, isn’t that what the United States is proposing to do in Iraq? Villepin has an answer to that, too. "Making two wars, one in Afghanistan, one in Iraq," he says, "is like having two women: it’s totally unmanageable!"

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