Making Sense of French Foreign Policy

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

July 2, 2003

Note: This opinion appeared as Part I in the “Regime Change in the Transatlantic Relationship” series In the National Interest.

The crisis over Iraq has not created a new transatlantic relationship. It has revealed gradual changes that had long been under way but had not been apparent until now. And it has updated perceptions. The best way to understand the crisis is not to assign blame to the U.S. or France or to any particular country, pretending in effect that the old regime of transatlantic relations still determines behavior, but rather to analyze the new system of rules, the new transatlantic regime that has resulted from recent historical events such as the disappearance of the Soviet threat, the growing relative military power of the United States and the September 11 terrorist attacks.

A perfect illustration of this tectonic shift from the old to the new regime is the French-U.S. relationship, for it did not, during the crisis over Iraq, conform to familiar patterns. As a result, nearly all of the experts failed to anticipate that the U.S. and France would ultimately reach an impasse over Iraq. This week, I will offer an analysis of recent French foreign policy, trying to sort out what motivated policy during the Iraqi crisis and, perhaps more importantly, what did not. Next week, I will focus on the bigger picture, the “regime change” in the transatlantic relationship, and on the new regime itself.

Let’s begin with the most commonly alleged sources of the French position vis-à-vis Washington during the Iraq crisis.

Did French policy derive from a defense of commercial interests? No. Trade with Iraq was somewhere between 0.2 percent and 0.3 percent of French trade, and if this had been a factor, the appropriate strategy for France and Germany would have been to join the coalition, and to insist on getting a fair share of oil and other contracts afterwards.

Did the French policy derive from reflexive anti-Americanism? Even less so—President Chirac is probably the least anti-American of all recent French presidents, and anti-Americanism, from a historical point of view, has been receding in French society since its high water marks in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The French public was strongly against this particular war, but its attitude was anti-Bush, not anti-American. A recent poll by the Pew Center, released in June 2003, confirms this view: 74 percent of French people polled think that the problem (“with the U.S.”) is with the Bush Administration. This is the highest rate among the 20 countries surveyed. Only 21 percent think the problem rests “with America in general,” a more delicate way of expressing anti-Americanism. This is the third lowest rate of the 20 countries surveyed.

Was French policy determined by France’s large Muslim minority? There is no doubt that President Chirac welcomed the renewed bond between the Muslim community and the rest of the French population that resulted from a common opposition to the war in Iraq—not to mention the personal popularity he gained among French Muslims for his stance. Nonetheless, those very real effects were not a motivating factor in the first place. Chirac was ready to join the U.S.-led coalition and to send troops into the region as late as January 7. He sent an emissary in December to coordinate possible French participation with the Pentagon. Had he felt that French participation was justified, he would not have hesitated to go against the preference of a majority of French Muslims, as President Mitterrand did in deciding upon French participation in the 1991 Gulf War. The cost, here, is not significantly different from the one incurred by going against a majority of French public opinion in general. And Iraq is not as sensitive an issue for French Muslims as the Israel—Palestine issue.

Did the policy result from a French quest for multipolarity? The preference for a multipolar world does color French policy but only as a secondary and mostly rhetorical factor. It is not a primary source of French foreign policy, and Chirac’s talk about multipolarity is more about multilateralism—deciding together about issues that concern us all—rather than about constraining American power. A good point in case is the French reaction to the American actions in Afghanistan in 2001-2002. There was no talk about multipolarity, because the United States and Europe formerly agreed on the necessity of rooting out the Taliban as a key part of the war on terrorism. France sent troops, fighter jets, an aircraft carrier battle group, and 73 percent of French public opinion approved of this American-led war—another demonstration that France is neither pacifist nor massively anti-American. The intervention in Kosovo provides another interesting example in this respect.

On the contrary, when France disagrees strongly with the United States government on some particular issue and when it feels is in the mainstream of world public opinion, the idea that the U.S. would decide to go against the will of most other countries naturally creates talk about multipolarity—not the other way around.

When one reads about French foreign policy in the American press, it often seems as if France’s overriding goal, its “grand strategy,” its constant obsession, is to derail American foreign policy under any circumstances. Maybe it would be possible to find proponents of such a purely anti-US foreign policy in France, especially on the extreme left. But from my personal experience, rather than hostility to toward the U.S. one finds in the Quai d’Orsay (the French foreign ministry) mostly ignorance about U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. political system. There is a great deal of expertise and knowledge about Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, but what might be called the “American factor”—how will a given issue play in Washington?—is more often overlooked than overemphasized. In other words, there is nothing vaguely resembling an obsessive quest to check United States power at every turn.

Now, let’s examine the real reasons behind the French attitude toward the war in Iraq.

The war on terrorism is the most important one. The French see the invasion of Iraq as a step backward in the war against terrorism, as quite a few experts do.

They feel that the invasion has made their daily life less secure—and they know about Islamist terrorism, having been targeted by terrorists many times since the 1980’s, including twice last year by Al Qaeda in Karachi and in the Arabian Sea. There are many reasons for this belief: Saddam was never convincingly linked to Al-Qaeda; terrorist recruitment will be fueled by a war pitting the West against a Muslim country; the show of force cannot deter terrorist networks that have no territorial basis, and cannot coerce the countries that are the real problem—particularly Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Proliferation of WMD is another reason. If even a tiny portion of the Iraqi biological weapons mentioned by President Bush in his State of the Union address has slipped into the hands of terrorists just before or during the invasion, or if Iraqi chemical weapons specialists have defected to Al-Qaeda as a result to the fall of Saddam’s regime, then the danger of catastrophic terrorism has increased. Moreover, there is a worry that exaggerations about Saddam’s WMD may decrease the ability of the international community to mobilize public opinion against proliferation in other places, particularly Iran and North Korea.

European historical pessimism and wariness of war is another major reason. The U.S. strategy in Iraq had many bases, but beyond question one important basis was a peculiarly American optimism about the ability to change the world through the application of military power. In France, and in Europe as a whole, the historical view is more pessimistic. Europeans see little in their long and sorrowful experience in the region—especially the British and French, the Mandatory Powers for Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine after World War I—to support the notion that force and occupation can bring democracy to the Arab world. A vocal minority of French intellectuals and politicians, however, did emphasize that part of the agenda, and advocated supporting the United States (including Bernard Kouchner, Alain Madelin, Romaine Goupil, André Glucksmann and Pascal Bruckner,) because as a goal the idea of supporting democracy and conflict resolution in the Middle East enjoys widespread support in France. The question is the means.

And regime change through military intervention doesn’t have much appeal in France. Having experienced military conflict on their continent within living memory, Europeans feel they know more about its consequences than Americans, and their threshold for deciding when war as a last resort becomes necessary is consequently higher. Last but not least, this war was seen as unnecessarily fueling a possible “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Arab/Muslim world.

These are, from my perspective, the real reasons behind the French position in the last few months. It has to be acknowledged though that the vast majority of experts on both sides of the Atlantic—including myself—failed to predict that these reasons would be enough for France to attempt to stand in the way of U.S. action in Iraq. The surprise that resulted goes a long way in explaining the bitterness of the aftermath. So the question remains: why did we misunderstand what France would do?

My explanation is that France’s actions reveal that a new transatlantic system is slowly emerging, where old patterns are increasingly replaced by new ones, old rules by new rules. This is what I will focus on in the second article next week.