No man is an island, the poet wrote, and in these days of
terrorism and hostage takings, you might add that nor is any
country. This is true even of France, which since Aug. 20 has seen
its own Iraqi hostage drama unfold with the kidnapping of two
French journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot of
Radio France Internationale and the newspaper Le Figaro, enroute
from Baghdad to Najaf.
The Iraqi hostage-takers, a group calling itself the Islamic Army
in Iraq, late on Saturday released a tape demanding that France
rescind its new law banning Muslim headscarves from public schools
within 48 hours. Extending their blackmailing tactics for the first
time beyond Iraq, they called the ban "an aggression on the Islamic
religion and personal freedoms."
It turns out that keeping political distance from America does not
appease Muslim fanatics who hate and despise all of us in the West.
Observers of the twists and turns of French politics may wonder
whether this realization has finally dawned on French President
Jacques Chirac, who is indicating that rapprochement with the
United States should be in the air.
With a Muslim population approaching 10 percent, the French
government has for a long time attempted a difficult balancing act
vis-a-vis the Muslim world in foreign and domestic policy that
often runs afoul of relations with the United States. On the one
hand, the French government has made great show of opposing the
American military intervention in Iraq, from the U.N. Security
Council to the most recent NATO meeting in Istanbul earlier this
summer. And French leaders routinely pay fawning visits to
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Domestically, however, the
government has waged its own domestic war against the wearing of
Muslim headscarves in French schools.
A number of factors may be contributing to a certain amount of
re-evaluation, at least in the Quai d'Orsay, the French foreign
ministry and French officials today are singing a softer tune on
relations with the United States. One is the hostage drama. Another
is a realization that opposition to American actions has
marginalized French influence in world affairs, not increased it,
as seemed to be the case momentarily during the battles in the U.N.
Security Council in January and February 2003. Yet another factor
is that within an enlarged European Union of 25 countries, it
becomes much harder from France to call the shots in Europe.
New French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier has sketched out a far
different course than that of his grandiose predecessor, Dominique
de Villepin, whose admiration for Napoleon very much tended to get
in the way of his judgment on international affairs.
At an annual gathering of French ambassadors last week, Mr. Barnier
avoided discussing anything smacking of conflict, such as
trans-Atlantic relations or the Middle East, and stressed
cooperation within Europe to maximize French influence. Amazingly
for a French diplomat, Mr. Barnier denounced his own country's
"arrogance." "France is not great when it is arrogant," he said.
"France is not strong when it is alone." Some ambassadors were
quoted after the meeting calling Mr. Barnier the "anti-de
Meanwhile, Mr. Chirac too has moderated his tone. At the same
meeting, the French president held out his hand to the next
American president following the election, whoever he may be, and
stated that "as a permanent friend and ally of the United States,
France believes that, today and tomorrow, a balanced and dynamic
trans-Atlantic partnership is essential to meet our common
challenges." Mr. Chirac also changed his tune on Iraq, probably
with an eye to future contracts, and spoke of cooperation in Iraq
and possible debt forgiveness.
Still, just a few days after Mr. Chirac had sung the praises of two
centuries of Franco-American friendship, he headed off to the Black
Sea for a meeting Monday and Tuesday with the leaders of Russia and
Germany, the two countries with whom France ganged up to oppose the
invasion of Iraq at the United Nations. There is no doubt that
France still dreams of a grand alliance with Germany and Russia to
counterbalance the United States.
What we are seeing, therefore, is a tactical correction rather than
a strategic one. As former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick once
told an editorial board meeting of The Washington Times, you don't
know the meaning of "national interest" until you have tried
dealing with the French. Despite today's blandishments, the next
American president will do well to keep this salutary lesson in
Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at
the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
First appeared in The Washington Times