Despite intense pressure from Washington, several weeks into negotiations at the Security Council of the United Nations, France is holding to its position on how to resolve the current crisis in international policy toward Iraq. As stated by the minister of foreign affairs before the National Assembly, France prefers a two-pronged approach. First, France wants a resolution to specify the practical arrangements that will permit the return of UN inspectors to verify that Iraq does not have proscribed weapons of mass destruction. This first step should reestablish consensus on the Security Council, which is the only way to send a clear and strong message to Saddam Hussein. If Hussein refuses or obstructs the inspectors, then the Security Council should reconvene to determine what to do next, if necessary, passing a second resolution.

France, now supported by Russia, refused to sign onto Washington’s preferred option: a single resolution which lays out automatic armed intervention as the penalty for Iraqi non-compliance. When Washington offered a slightly watered-down version of its resolution in mid-October, France and Russia surprised many observers by circulating their own draft resolutions among Security Council members. The French text removes references to Iraq being in “material breach” of its obligation to disarm, whereas Russia’s draft omits language promising “serious consequences” for Iraqi non-compliance with inspections. Both phrases are viewed at the UN as “hidden triggers” for US military action, an eventuality the vast majority of member states seek to avoid.

The political climate that reigns in France is quite different from that which prevailed in 1990 after the Iraqi aggression against Kuwait. At that time, France tried to advance a political solution, laid out in a speech delivered by President Francois Mitterand in September 1990 to the UN General Assembly. Once the die was cast, however, Mitterand’s government quickly lined up with the logic of war. France sent an important contingent to participate in Operation Desert Storm, and until 1998, French warplanes flew alongside US and British jets that police, and periodically bomb, the no-fly zone in southern Iraq.

In 1990-1991, opposition to military intervention was in the minority. Nevertheless, a very intense debate took place in the country between those who supported the official position and those who contested it. Today such a debate is absent. A fairly large consensus of French opinion supports the position taken by President Jacques Chirac, and ferociously criticizes what, in Paris, is often called George W. Bush’s “Iraq obsession.”

Inspections First

All arguments on the French political spectrum converge on two essential points. First, the objective of international intervention in Iraq must be disarmament of the Iraqi regime, as mandated by UN resolutions, and not “regime change.” No matter how atrocious Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship may be, the Bush administration policy of regime change flies in the face of principles of international law. France is not opposed to the principle of outside intervention in the affairs of sovereign states, as it has progressively developed over the past years. But Washington’s proposed method of ousting Saddam Hussein by force awards victory to the strongest, instituting a sort of law of the jungle that would quickly devour what international law has brought to the regulation of international relations for over 50 years.

Second, resolution of the 2002 Iraq crisis should be relegated to the UN. The first priority is to negotiate a return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq, where they should do their work without impediment. As the Iraqi regime has now accepted the inspectors’ return in principle, French opinion feels that the regime’s word should be taken at face value, and that inspections should proceed as far as possible in locating and destroying Iraq’s putative weapons of mass destruction. If, after maximum effort, inspections still lead to an impasse, all subsequent action should be based on international law and authorized by the only legitimate body: the Security Council. For some in France, this means recourse to force; for others, no. The right and the left differ on this eventuality.

The government and its parliamentary majority refuse to rule out an armed response if Saddam Hussein doesn’t respect his obligations, while the left is hostile to any recourse to force. Trade unions, the Communist Party, the Green Party and the Socialist Party sponsored the first demonstration against the prospective war on October 2 in Paris and in dozens of other French cities. Together the left forces signed a letter affirming that any military intervention carries within it the germ of general catastrophe. Instead of attacking the problem of international terrorism, the destabilization of the Middle East resulting from a war on Iraq can only revive global tensions. The text asks the French government to use its veto at the Security Council — should the US ask for authorization of a military strike—and to consider more than ever the need to negotiate political solutions, within the confines of international law, in order to construct a durable peace in the Middle East.

Apprehensions of Crisis

Motivations behind French policy revolve around several considerations. France is convinced that today’s international priority should be the struggle against terrorism. As the dramatic events in Bali recently revealed, this struggle cannot be derailed by a war against Iraq, whose alleged collusion with al-Qaeda has never been proven. If it had been, al-Qaeda would obviously have figured more prominently in Bush’s arguments for war.

In the Middle East, Paris figures that the most urgent matter is the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the past two years, the situation on the ground has deteriorated severely. The Israeli government has adopted nothing but an aggressive posture, doing everything to destroy the Palestinian Authority (PA) without ever proposing a political exit from the crisis. Chirac continues to repeat that the conflict cannot be resolved by military force; a political solution must be negotiated under the aegis of an international conference.

The French authorities believe that a unilateral attack on Iraq will deepen the broader crisis in the Middle East, especially since Bush appears to have authorized Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to respond to any Iraqi missile attack, unlike 1991 when the US pressed Israel not to retaliate. In private, French diplomats hypothesize that Sharon may go well beyond a riposte against Iraq, seizing the opportunity to attack the Palestinians, Hizballah in southern Lebanon and even the Syrians. These diplomats listened apprehensively when PA official Nabil Shaath came to Paris and several other European capitals to ask what Europe would do if the Palestinians were to be expelled en masse from the West Bank.

Mr. Federation

Above and beyond these regional concerns, French diplomacy is preoccupied with the new strategic posture adopted by the Bush administration—what is being called “American unilateralism.” Bush’s concept of the preemptive, or preventive, strike caused much anxiety in the National Assembly. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin himself spoke of Washington’s “simplistic vision” that divides the world into good and evil, and forcefully rejected the US approach which, ignoring international law, envisages war as the first alternative. Raffarin added that international law should be applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as to Iraq.

This analysis is largely shared by the major French media. Le Monde, which famously printed an editorial entitled “We Are All Americans” in the aftermath of September 11, has resumed a very critical position toward the US. A recent political cartoon on the front page showed Chirac leading a juvenile Bush by the hand. When the two men arrive in front of an old sage symbolizing the UN, Chirac says to Bush, “Go on, Jojo, say your piece to the man.” The delinquent Bush, armed with a revolver, says, “If it’s all right with you, sir, I would like to make war.”

Positioned right in the middle of the European debate between British servility toward US war plans and the radical refusal of Germany to participate in military action, Jacques Chirac finds himself playing the role of Mr. Federation. His position is very firmly grounded on principle but open to compromise, being supported by Germany and, in a fashion, by Great Britain. During a recent meeting, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said, “I have the utmost respect for France’s role.” British Prime Minister Tony Blair has chose to stand by Bush’s position, but he must take into account the wide gap between his posture and British public opinion, as well as the public disapproval of a number of Labor MPs. Blair has thus insisted, echoing France, that the US gain the imprimatur of the UN.

Compromise or Diplomatic Cover?

For his part, Chirac is riding high. Since his first election to office in 1995, his stature as a statesman has never been so lofty—not even during the war in Kosovo. For the first time, he finds his neo-Gaullist credentials accepted everywhere. Arab states now find France to be a solid ally in their resistance to an attack on Iraq—under great pressure from Arab public opinion. On a recent trip to Egypt, Chirac restated his message: “This region doesn’t need another war.” Soon thereafter, he attended the summit of Francophone countries, which for the first time was held on Arab soil, in Beirut. There Chirac could once again assemble a consensus around his position on Iraq. On the domestic front, the consensus backing Chirac’s policy improves his standing with the French population of Arab origin, particularly North Africans.

To date, French policy on the question of Iraq has the great merit of being contrary to, and thus forcing reflection upon, a US administration that seems walled in by its certitude. Anxious to secure a tough new resolution by the end of October, the Bush administration has upped rhetoric intended to strong-arm the Security Council into cooperation, with Bush again comparing the UN to the League of Nations and promising that the US “will lead a coalition and disarm Saddam Hussein” if a resolution does not pass soon. Since respect for international law and the role of the United Nations lies at the heart of the Security Council debate, the destiny of international relations is at stake. The compromise resolution on Iraq that may take shape as France, along with Russia, continues to resist the US position could provide a map for the future—on the condition that Bush does not consider the compromise mere diplomatic cover under which to prepare his unilateral offensive.

Translated from the French by David McMurray.

How to cite this article:

Jean-Paul Chagnollaud "Letter from France," Middle East Report Online, October 28, 2002.

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