Skip to main content

France, the United States and the “”War on Terrorism””


The French people and government have demonstrated extraordinary sympathy and solidarity for the United States in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Spontaneous gestures of friendship towards Americans in France, including symbolic acts such as the playing of the American national anthem at the Elysée Palace, underlined the degree to which much of the French public felt themselves victims of the attack along with the Americans. The newspaper Le Monde—not known for reflexive Atlanticism—editorialized on September 13 that “We are all Americans.” It even began publishing daily full-page English-language coverage of the story drawn from the New York Times,. Some in France, of course, have dissociated themselves from the expressions of solidarity, and instead blame American foreign policy for the climate in which the attacks occurred.

For the most part, however, September 11 has brought the French public closer to the United States. After recent concern over a supposedly growing transatlantic “cultural gap” on issues such as the death penalty, abortion, gun control and religion, the attacks have served as a sharp reminder of the values and interests that Americans and Europeans still have in common.

French leaders from across the political spectrum have, with few exceptions, expressed solidarity with and support for the United States. While traditionally reluctant to see NATO’s role enhanced, or the scope of its missions expanded, France did not hesitate to support the invocation of NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense guarantee. President Jacques Chirac and other leaders have made clear France’s readiness to take part alongside the United States in a possible military retaliation, a stance supported by no less than 73% of the French.

The sometimes serious differences the French government has had with the Bush administration-over issues like the American pursuit of a missile defense program and rejection of treaties like the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, the International Criminal Court and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty-have, at least for the time being, been put aside.

France, of course, has made it clear that its solidarity does not mean a “blank check” for the United States. In his September 24 address to the Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale, for example, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin stressed that while France would not “shirk its responsibilities,” this would not prevent it from “making a free judgment about French participation in a military engagement.”

Chirac had presented the same message after his September 18 meeting with President Bush in the White House, making military cooperation conditional upon France being “consulted in advance about the objectives and modalities of an action, whose goal must be the elimination of terrorism.”



Philip H. Gordon

Former Brookings Expert

Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State

Reflecting the attitude of much of the French public, French leaders have stressed a number of points about the combat against international terrorism. First, they insist that the response to the September 11 attacks should not be primarily military, and warn against turning a war on terrorism into a war on Islam. As Foreign Minister Védrine has put it, any response must “not only be punitive but preventative…to fight against terrorism you must fight against its sources: finances, fanatical and destructive ideologies, situations and crises that provide militants to the terrorists.”

Thus, without excluding the possible need for a military riposte, French leaders foresee a campaign that will primarily involve diplomacy, law enforcement, and international intelligence cooperation. This emphasis on the non-military components of the campaign perhaps explains French leaders’ initial reluctance to use the word “war,” with its military connotations, to describe the anti-terrorism campaign.

Second, to the extent that French leaders accept that a military response is necessary, they believe it should be limited as much as possible to precise terrorist targets, rather than countries or regimes more broadly. “You can’t strike blindly,” Chirac warned while in Washington. And Jospin emphasized that military strikes must be “proportional, strategically and militarily justified, and politically coherent.”

French public opinion, according to polls, takes the same view, with 84% of those surveyed (compared with 56% of the Americans) saying that any military strike should involve only military, as opposed to civilian, targets.

Barring new and concrete evidence of direct involvement by Iraq or Iran, there would be no support in France for military strikes against those countries, as some in the United States envisage. With more than four million Muslims resident in France, and given their own painful experiences with extremist terrorism, the French are particularly concerned about what Védrine called “falling into the diabolical trap that the terrorists wanted to set, that of a ‘clash of civilizations.'”

Many French thus reacted with dismay when President Bush used the word “crusade” to describe the American-led campaign, and were reassured by his subsequent efforts, when visiting a Mosque and in his September 20 speech to Congress, to stress that the American adversary was terrorism, and not Islam.

The French also stress the need for legitimacy for the response to September 11, which they believe will come from as broad an international coalition as possible and the approval and involvement of the United Nations. It was France that went to the UN Security Council as early as September 12 to propose a resolution condemning the attacks and having them declared a “threat to international peace and security” under the Charter’s Chapter VII concerning the use of force. This is not a surprising position for France, which already during the 1999 Kosovo war and debate over NATO’s new Strategic Concept stressed the overwhelming importance of the United Nations in legitimizing military action. According to Védrine, the Security Council is “the most legitimate body for defining the world’s general counter-terrorism policy.”

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, France stresses the importance of renewed engagement to resolve regional problems—such as Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—if terrorism is to be eliminated. Already before September 11, French leaders were concerned about the deterioration of the Middle East peace process and calling on the United States to get more involved.

This pressure will only increase now, not least because of the French conviction that, while not directly responsible for the attacks, the anger built up throughout the Arab world as a consequence of the suffering of Iraqis and Palestinians contributes to the breeding ground for terrorism. Thus, while agreeing on the need for short-term diplomatic, economic and military measures to combat terrorism, the French are also focussed on what they see as its “root causes.” Prime Minister Jospin probably spoke for many in France when he talked about the need for “an organization of the world that shows more solidarity.” While stressing that “such barbarous acts cannot be justified by any world disorder,” Jospin noted that “in many places, tension, frustration and radicalism are linked to inequality.”

A former Prime Minister, Alain Juppé, added that “If we don’t make progress toward the solution of these conflicts—and I am mainly thinking of the conflict in the Middle East—we will not be able to permanently eradicate the violence.”

The French public seems to share these views, and even holds the United States partially responsible for the basic problems: in one recent poll no less than 75% of those asked said they believed that American foreign policy bore some responsibility for the rise of Islamic fanaticism.

On most of these issues of concern to France—the need for consultations, the emphasis on non-military tools, the building of a broad coalition for narrow military objectives, the need for legitimacy and the addressing of root causes—French leaders are broadly satisfied with the Bush administration’s initial response. After Chirac’s visit to Washington, much of the French delegation even left the White House with the impression of a new American emphasis on multilateralism, one that contrasted sharply with the unilateralism that had marked the administration’s first nine months.

That could change in the coming weeks and months, of course, depending on the course of events and of American policy. Continued strong French support and participation in the war on terrorism is likely to be largely a function of the degree to which the United States consults closely, builds a broad coalition, uses military force judiciously, builds maximum legitimacy, and redoubles its efforts to resolve regional problems in the Middle East.


Get daily updates from Brookings