Merci for the French Correction

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

February 15, 2003

As a Frenchman, I have certainly learned a lot about my country in recent weeks.

“How dare the French forget,” read a headline in the New York Post on Monday, on a page with a photograph of a military cemetery in Normandy.

I apologize for being so ungrateful. It’s just that I learned in school that France and Britain declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939, while the United States was enacting isolationist laws, and that America entered the war two years later, only after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. But now I see that was just Gallic propaganda. How could I have believed it?

I now know what really happened: Franklin D. Roosevelt felt that a country with more than 300 kinds of cheese was worth liberating, and for the love of France he came to our rescue. Joseph Stalin came to the same conclusion, but—fortunately for us—he was slower and had to stop in Berlin.

Meanwhile, Lafayette and Rochambeau were a different story altogether: They apparently came here not to help Americans gain their independence but merely to execute the crass realpolitik maneuvers of Louis XVI.

I have also been interested to learn that my hesitation in endorsing war in Iraq is mainly a product of my nostalgia for France’s past glory. As Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times, being weak after being powerful is a terrible thing. Perhaps he is right. I had been deluded into thinking that my doubts about military intervention in Iraq had something to do with fears of civilian casualties, the use of weapons of mass destruction, increasing terrorism or Middle East instability. But apparently we French are really just longing for the time of Napoleon or Louis XIV.

In those good old days, we could unilaterally invade a Muslim Arab country, say Egypt or Algeria, and create a regional mess just because we felt like it. Now, because we can’t do that anymore, we try to bother the United States. The fact that war is opposed by large majorities in most other countries around the world, which have no such nostalgia complexes, must be pure coincidence.

Another thing I had failed to appreciate was how isolated we French are. It’s painful to admit, but only 73 percent of the French people oppose a war without a second U.N. resolution. We definitely cannot pretend we speak for the rest of the world, as war is opposed by 82 percent of the European Union (84 percent of Brits), and in other parts of the world, let’s say South America, it’s more in the range of 90 percent. So we should shut up. And we should also admit that our isolation makes us insignificant, though I still can’t understand why publications such as the Weekly Standard keep talking about us so much. Maybe it has something to do with our food.

Now that I have admitted everything, I should own up to the true motivation of our foreign policy: We are protecting commercial interests, especially oil. For the harsh truth, just check out the International Monetary Fund’s Web site:

From 2000 to 2001, our exports to Iraq jumped from 0.12 percent to 0.2 percent of our total exports! Never mind that we’ll never realize our oil contracts with Iraq or get our debt repaid so long as Saddam Hussein stays in power, and don’t believe anyone who tells you that a truly mercantilist France would help America attack Iraq and share the spoils afterward. Some even make the bizarre claim that if America wanted to enhance its oil interests, it would join France and oppose the war in the United Nations so as to keep oil flowing from Iraq at current levels (America is the first buyer of Iraqi oil). But not too much oil, as this would lower the price to a point where it would be bad for Texas producers and Alaska drilling. But I take that as typically far-fetched Gallic perfidy.

My situation is now very difficult: When I talk to my former French friends on the phone, they claim they oppose the war for the same reasons about 40 percent of Americans do. They claim that they find their own arguments expounded in American newspapers by American statesmen; namely, that war would help Osama bin Laden recruit new followers, that war would trigger more terrorist attacks at home and abroad, that containment can work, and that it would be hard to impose stability—let alone democracy—on Iraq, especially when you look at Afghanistan.

But I don’t listen to them anymore. After all, they’re French. I know better. I have become an American.