September 1, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Napoleonic Retreat

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 Villepin."

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 mind. 
 
Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: helle.dale@heritage.org.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times