By Gabriel M. Scheinmann
Gabriel M. Scheinmann ’08 attends Harvard College and is a Government concentrator living in Eliot House. He is a dual citizen of France and the United States.
On March 12, 2003, French-American relations were at their lowest nadir since General Charles de Gaulle occupied L’Elysee. Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio, Chair of the Committee of House Administration at the time, renamed all French fries served in House cafeterias “Freedom fries,” calling the gesture a “small, but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure of many on Capitol Hill with the actions of our so-called ally, France.” Rather than react with anger or acknowledge Ney’s ploy as a personal affront, designed to excoriate the French for blocking a second United Nations resolution authorizing the Second Iraq War, the French Embassy declined to comment and meekly announced that French fries were actually Belgian.
This amusing episode trivializes the greater tensions between French and American policies on the Middle East. The two freedom-loving countries are at loggerheads with one another over almost every major policy issue concerning the region and they seldom pass up an opportunity to talk past one another. While the French accuse Yankee foreign policy as imperialistic, materialistic, and unilateral, Americans revel in reminding the Frogs that if it were not for the U.S. army, the French would be speaking German and eating bratwurst.
How did things get to be so bad? What was the catalyst that brought American and French nationalist antipathy to the surface? In a September 2003 column titled “Our War with France” Thomas Friedman, the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, concluded, “France wants America to fail in Iraq.” It is this conflict over the competing French and American visions for the Middle East that has severely soured diplomatic and popular relations between the two peoples.
The arguments between France and the U.S. over America’s decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power arose from their fundamentally different visions for the future of the Middle East. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. has sought to transform the Middle East into a non-threatening entity through military force and diplomatic pressure. The U.S. acted unilaterally because it lacked willing allies but also because it believed that it could succeed alone. It has reentered the Middle East in full force, seeking to protect its allies and promote political and economic liberalization.
Across the Atlantic, the French—whose power has been declining faster than their pomp since the Franco-Prussian War of 1871—have struggled to remain relevant in their own backyard. By reinforcing their historically pro-Arab foreign policy, the French have insisted that they be heard, arguing that they alone can influence Arab decision-making. Fearing that the United States would unilaterally usurp warm relations with Arab regimes—the last remaining bargaining chip of French diplomatic—President Chirac sought to block the U.S. from establishing a large and aggressive presence in the Middle East.
The foreign policies of both France and the U.S. aim to promote those countries’ national values abroad. France’s mission civilisatrice—a civilizing ethos that France spreads to the world—still has an entrenched place in French foreign policy. Because of their unique, revolutionary histories, France and America both feel that they are the world’s sole guiding lights, on a crusade to spread a universal message of democracy, human rights, and social justice. However, as Dominique Moisi of France’s Institute for International Relations points out, “While [the French] may feel that the competition for universalism is still going on, we also know that the Americans have already won the battle for power and language.”
While America aims to spread its values, its involvement in the Middle East has far more specific and immediate goals. In addition to securing the existence of Israel and the stability of Turkey and moderate Arab regimes, the U.S. seeks to ally itself with anti-terrorist countries, secure the unimpeded flow of oil, prevent the proliferation of all weapons of mass destruction, and encourage the promotion and protection of freedom, human rights, and democracy. The U.S. has become a Middle Eastern hegemon because it has sought to accomplish an explicit set of goals, rather than use those goals as a means to maintaining power. As France clings to its Paris-centric view of the Middle East, it has long since ceded its place to the far more powerful United States.
France’s history in the Middle East continues to cast a shadow on current French policies and intentions in the region. In 732, Charles Martel, King of the Franks, defeated the invading Muslim armies at the decisive Battle of Tours, halting the rapid Muslim conquest of territory that had begun with the Prophet Muhammad one hundred years earlier. A millennium later, French forces entered the Middle East when General Napoleon Bonaparte landed a large French expedition at Alexandria, Egypt in 1798, quickly conquering what is now Egypt, Israel, Palestine, and Syria before being defeated by the British. The French have had a permanent presence in the Middle East since the 1830 invasion and conquest of Algeria. With the establishment of protectorates Tunisia in 1881 and Morocco in 1911, the French Third Republic became the premier North African power. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, France inherited the territories of Syria and Lebanon, establishing ties to the Levant that still exist today. However, colonialist fatigue, Arab nationalism, and armed revolt combined to force the French into a graceless exit from all its colonies by 1962. Since then, France has continued to seek influence in the Middle East by representing the causes of Arab countries on the international scene.
French foreign policy is founded on “several centuries of diplomatic tradition and some fundamental principles: the right of peoples to self-determination, respect for human rights and democratic principles, respect for the rule of law, and cooperation among nations.” However, successive French governments have often undercut these principles in the Middle East in order to grasp what little influence they could with the newly independent Arab states.
After gaining their independence, Arab states became new fronts in the Cold War. As the U.S. and U.S.S.R. rushed to supply the Third World with arms, French commercial and political interests were forced to take a backseat. In order for France to remain atop its global perch, it had to adjust its policies and start courting newly independent Arab states as equals, not as colonies. Charles de Gaulle, the wartime Free French leader and the President of the Fifth Republic, was an ardent realist and took a pragmatic approach to the changing situation. Tailoring his foreign policy accordingly, he began to treat Israel—recently an ally—as merely another state in the Middle East. By the end of the Algerine War, France had reestablished full diplomatic ties with Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, and Egypt; the Israeli Alliance had lost its importance. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, France denied the United States refueling and over-flight rights for the resupply of arms and equipment to Israel. As French historian Raymond Aron wrote, “[de Gaulle] is backing the Arabs, not because he is anti-Zionist or still less anti-Semitic, but in the interests of France.”
It soon became French policy to establish relations with and provide support for pro-French Arab leaders, no matter their moral shortcomings, in order to entrench French influence in the region. In 1974, President Valery Giscard d’Estaing established relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) despite its status at the zenith of international terror rankings, its recent involvement in the Munich Massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games, and its assassination of the U.S. Ambassador to Sudan in 1973. France also provided refuge for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the future leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Following its courtship of the PLO and Khomeini, France became the leading supporter of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In December 1974, then-Prime Minister Jacques Chirac visited Baghdad to negotiate trade agreements, including a deal for a nuclear reactor in eastern Iraq that was signed in September the following year. When Saddam Hussein visited France to sign the accord, Chirac said, “I welcome you as my personal friend. I assure you my esteem, my consideration, and my affection.” Following the 1981 Israeli aerial bombing of the French-built nuclear reactor at Osirak, France even offered to rebuild the reactor, before quickly scuttling the idea. Between 1981 and 1996, Saddam Hussein spent more than $20 billion on French arms and aircraft, earning the French President the nickname of “Ch-iraq.” As the United States began marshalling international support for pre-emptive war against Baghdad, French politicians secretly met with Iraqi officials in May 2002 and “assured the Iraqis that France would use its veto in the United Nations Security Council against any American resolution to attack Iraq.” After the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, a dossier emerged indicating that French officials “kept Saddam abreast of every development in American planning and may have helped him to prepare for war. One report warned of an American attempt to associate Iraq with terrorism as “a cover for an attack on Iraq.”
Paris believes that a just resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the key to bringing peace and stability to the entire Middle East. It chides the United States for strongly supporting the Israeli government, arguing that this policy hinders peace. While American support for Israel is as strong as ever, French relations with Israel remain strained due to French support for Arab regimes hostile to Israel and the anti-Israel comments of senior French diplomatic officials. In 2001, the French Ambassador to Great Britain was reported to have called Israel a “shitty little country.” In 2003, the French Ambassador to Israel called the Jewish State “paranoid” and labeled Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a “lout.” During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the French Foreign Minister called Israel’s attack “disproportionate” and designated the attack in Qana a “murderous raid.” In late October 2006, French soldiers participating in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) came close to causing a diplomatic calamity when they almost shot at Israeli fighters that had flown into Lebanese airspace in “attack posture.” According to a new book by David Pryce-Jones on Franco-Arab-Jewish relations, the French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin once called Israel “a parenthesis in history” that was bound to disappear.
The French government offered unflinching support to Yasser Arafat, the Chairman of the PLO and President of the Palestinian Authority, until his death in Paris in 2004. In visits to the region, French officials would often forego meeting Israeli Prime Ministers and instead schedule press conferences with Chairman Arafat as a show of solidarity and an expression of French diplomatic priorities. As Arafat neared his death in the fall of 2004, President Chirac graciously offered to foot the entire expense for Arafat’s transportation from Ramallah to Paris, placing several members of his entourage in five-star hotels.
French policy towards Hamas and the current Hamas-Fatah governing coalition is even more self-defeating. As early as 2003, the Bush administration lodged formal complaints with Paris that it was doing little to counter the proliferation of Hamas front organizations in France. Despite the EU’s decision in late 2005 to designate Hamas as a terrorist group, France has refused to follow suit, allowing the non-military wings of Hamas to fundraise in France. A 2004 French government position paper lauded Hamas’ “social activities which partially but significantly make up for some of the Palestinian Authority’s difficulties in guaranteeing essential services to Palestinian society,” without mentioning its involvement in suicidal terror and rocket attacks.
Following the formation of the Hamas-Fatah unity government in March 2007, France boasted that it was the first country to contact the new Palestinian government, despite the new government’s failure to adhere to the three principles for aid restoration agreed upon by the U.S., the U.N., the E.U., and Russia: renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel, and affirmation of past agreements. On April 2, the French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy suggested that the international community should gradually restore aid to the new Palestinian government, a policy that is obstinately at odds with American actions. Additionally, France seems unconcerned by the fate of Gilad Shalit, a dual French-Israeli citizen and Israeli soldier who was captured by Palestinian militants in June 2006. While the United States has agreed to maintain contacts with non-Hamas members of the new argument in order to continue funneling humanitarian aid directly to the Palestinian people, France has never considered Hamas an obstacle to peace.
In contrast to disagreements over relations with the Palestinian Authority, the isolation of Syria marks a rare point of accord between Paris and Washington. Syria is increasingly viewed as an unstable and dangerous force in the region, causing French and American policies to converge even though French leaders once nurtured a close relationship with the former Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad. In 2004, France and the United States cosponsored U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for the “withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon, disbandment of remaining militias—most notably the armed wing of Hezbollah—and holding a Lebanese presidential election free from external pressure.” When Syria failed to comply and continued to back pro-Damascus puppet and Lebanese President Emile Lehoud, it further angered both Chirac and Bush.
Relations between Syria and the West plummeted in February 2005 after Rafik Hariri, a popular Lebanese former Prime Minister and Chirac confidant, was assassinated, allegedly with the consent of Damascus. According to one French diplomat, “Before, all we did for Syria was because of Hariri; now everything we do against Syria is because of Hariri, again.” According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, at the start of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Chirac told Israel that he would support an Israeli invasion of Syria to topple the Assad regime due to Damascus’ continued obstinacy in violating Lebanese territorial, political, and judicial integrity.
Since then, both the United States and France have vigorously encouraged the development of a stable and democratic Lebanon. They have, however, disagreed about how to confront Hezbollah. After the U.S. labeled the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah as the leader of a terrorist group, Chirac invited Nasrallah to a Beirut summit on Francophonie. To this day, Paris still refuses to call Hezbollah a terrorist organization even though the European Union did so back in 2005.
If the U.S. spurns Hezbollah while France propitiates it, the two countries switch roles when they address Turkey. France is reluctant to admit Turkey into the EU, whereas the U.S. has sought to cultivate Turkey as an ally. Though Chirac voiced support for Turkish entry, the current presidential candidates have not followed suit. The U.S., on the other hand, hopes to anchor Turkey to the West and has made it a foreign policy objective to support Turkey’s EU candidacy. Paul Wolfowitz, then the American deputy Secretary of Defense, summed up Washington’s approach in 2002 when he said, “Turkey’s aspiration to join the European Union is a development that should be welcomed by all people who share values of freedom and democracy.”
One reason for this congenial relationship is that Turkey is an important military ally of the United States. It is the fifth largest importer of U.S. arms after Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Israel, and South Korea, all of which enjoy American military protection. No longer focused on the Soviet threat, Ankara and Washington now cooperate in the Middle East, the Caspian Sea, and the Caucasus. This shift has reenergized the partnership and added an important strategic dimension.
The U.S. became a major investor in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which began construction in late 2002, facilitating the transportation of Caspian oil and gas to Western markets. The pipeline, which carries oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, is unique because it bypasses both Russian and Iranian territory, thereby serving American interests and boosting the prestige of Turkey’s energy sector. The U.S.’s support for Baku-Ceyhan also stems from “a strong desire to support Turkey as an ally and strategically important country for the U.S. in its bid for a greater economic and political role in Caspian energy development.”
Turkey was also a source of Franco-American tensions during the run-up to the Iraq war in early 2003. France sought to block U.S.-led efforts to send NATO forces to defend Turkey from any possible spillover from the impending conflict with Iraq. By arguing that acceding to such a request would be tantamount to tacit support from all NATO member states for the impending American invasion, Paris attempted to thwart the U.S. initiative. When this argument did not enjoy pan-European support, the French government ultimately agreed that the decision to aid Turkey would be made in a NATO body where Paris was not a member. In late February 2003, NATO decided to provide defensive assistance to Turkey.
Paris has failed to take a clear stand on the Iranian nuclear issue, the greatest threat currently facing the region. Despite its recent cooperation with Britain, Germany, and the United States in imposing broad-but-weak economic sanctions on Iran, France clearly maintains strong economic ties with the country. Its exports to Iran doubled to 2 billion Euros in the five years leading up to the Iraq War. “The French are eager to come to Iran,” said Bernard Hourcade, a Paris-based Iran scholar who acts as a consultant to French companies considering doing business in Iran. “It is the only major place in the Middle East to invest because the other countries are more or less in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation.” During the 2006 Lebanon War, French Foreign Minister Phillipe Douste-Blazy stated that it was “evident that Iran plays a stabilizing force in the region.” In an interview with Israel’s Haaretz Daily in 2005, President Chirac reiterated that “the prospect of Iran equipping herself with nuclear weapons is unacceptable to France, her partners, and the entire world.” And yet, just several months ago, Chirac stated that the prospect of Iran “having one or perhaps a second bomb a little later, well, that’s not very dangerous.” The French President does not seem overly concerned that Iran’s nuclear ambitions threaten the basic stability of the entire region and could very well lead to a nuclear genocide, making the dual “never agains” of the Holocaust and Hiroshima ring hollow.
As Chirac nears the final days of his interminable time in office, the Middle East policies of the two leading presidential candidates sound a radically different tune, echoing popular dissatisfaction with “Chirac of Arabia.” Former Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the candidate from Chirac’s own Gaullist party and a long-time advocate of warmer French ties with Israel, supports tougher sanctions on Iran, but desires to keep Turkey out of the EU. Though calling the American invasion of Iraq a “historic mistake,” he has strongly come down on the side of the United States with regards to Iran, saying, “The idea of an Iran with nuclear weapons is unacceptable.” While Chirac called Iran an “old civilization, a great country,” Sarkozy has labeled Iran an “outlaw nation.” Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate, announced her support for the new democratic Iraqi government and demanded that nuclear power be withheld from Iran. However, she was widely criticized during her Middle East visit for not speaking out when a Hezbollah member of the Lebanese Parliament compared Israel to Nazi Germany. As this article goes to press, it is unclear which candidate will emerge victorious and whether either could substantively change France’s historically ingrained pro-Arab, pro-Iranian, and anti-American mentality.
French efforts to maintain its fading influence in the region have largely failed. Three Chirac allies, Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, and Yasser Arafat have all passed away ignobly. French antagonism towards Israel and cool relations with Turkey will continue to fundamentally clash with America’s stalwart and long-lasting support for Jerusalem and Ankara. With fewer than 2,000 soldiers in the Middle East, and only two hundred under exclusive French control, France is in a far weaker position than the United States to achieve its own strategic goals. As its own Muslim population, currently at 10%, grows, it will become increasingly difficult for France to change its foreign policy without riling its growing Muslim electorate. France has been unable to articulate its distinct objectives in the region, allowing the U.S. to take the initiative in dealing with Middle Eastern affairs. Although critics are quick to point to the disastrous quagmire in Iraq, the alarming Iranian threat, and the seeming inability of the United States to do anything about either, it is still safe to say that America and her close allies will make a far greater impact in the future of the region than the French. As the sun sets on the French attempt to reestablish its diplomatic empire, American power has firmly rooted itself on Middle Eastern soil.
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 Guitta 52.
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 Abramowitz, Morton. The United States and Turkey: Allies in Need. New York: The Century Foundation Press, 2003. 17.
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 Ibid 100.
 Gallis, Paul. “France: Factors Shaping Foreign Policy, and Issues in U.S.-French Relations.” CRS Report for Congress 19 May 2006.15.
 Gallis, Paul. “France: Factors Shaping Foreign Policy, and Issues in U.S.-French Relations.” CRS Report for Congress 19 May 2006. 23.
 Daragahi, Borzou. “France Steps Up Its Investments in Iran.” New York Times 23 Jun. 2004.
 “Once Again, a Leading Light.” The Economist 3 Aug. 2006.
 Embassy of France in Washington. “Interview Given by Jacques Chirac, President of the Republic, to Adar Primor from the Israeli Newspaper ‘Haaretz’ – Excerpts.” Standpoint 133 (22 Jul. 2005). 27 Apr. 2007 <http://www.ambafrance-us.org/news/standpoint/stand133.asp>
 Sciolino, Elaine and Bennhold, Katrin. “Chirac Muses on Iran, then Retreats.” International Herald Tribune 1 Jan. 2007.
 Vinocur, John. “Chirac and the Arabs, as the End Approaches.” New York Times 14 Nov. 2006.
 Sciolino, Elaine. “Sarkozy Outlines Foreign Policy for France.” New York Times 1 Mar. 2007.
 “Beyond These Shores.” The Economist 26 Oct. 2006.
 Vinocur, ibid.
 Sciolino, ibid.