Friday, January 20

The problem with the French is that they have no word for cowboy

Let me be clear about one thing: this post is not intended as a criticism of France or the French people. Events I describe may deserve criticism, but I am not offering it here. I have great admiration for France, for French culture (though more historical than contemporary), and Paris is, unquestionably, the greatest city I've ever had the pleasure to visit. With that said, some free flowing thoughts on France and America.

France, including its press (Le Monde, predictably, but also Le Figaro) and its government, has been disdainful of President Bush and his administration since his election. Particularly bilious criticism has been directed at what is perceived to be the United States' unilateral hubris--its willingness to exercise military force without international (read French) approval--and at the cowboy president who conducts such blunt diplomacy.

And now a few rough situations to ponder:

1. America's ultimate success or failure in Iraq is as yet unknowable. The current situation is an ideological Rorschach test, with the left resigned to American humiliation and advocating withdrawal and the right touting the success of three elections and predicting modest but steady progress towards the democratization of the Middle East. France's role in the Ivory Coast, by contrast, seems far more starkly parlous.

The Ivorian civil war is more established and intractable than the "civil war" that many see in Iraq, and France is caught squarely in the crossfire. Ever since 2004, when "Ivorian jets killed nine French soldiers . . . and France responded by crippling Ivory Coast's tiny air force," France has been unable to impose order on its former colony and unwilling to abandon its traditional role as capo of West Africa. In 2004, supporters of president Gbagbo attacked and looted French businesses and homes in Abidjan, and France instructed 16,000 non-essential French nationals to absquatulate toute de suite. In an ironic twist, at the same time that coalition forces were entering Iraq, Gbagbo's supporters took to the streets to protest French intervention in their national affairs and to invite the United States to intervene! (Sample sign: U.S.A. we need your help. Chirac is another Ben Laden [sic]. He is killing democracy in Ivory Coast. He supports rebels.")

This BBC FAQ is a useful primer for those who have not been following the conflict closely. Since moving back from London, I have realized that the Ivorian situation barely registers in the North American media, but it is a big story in France and the BBC and other English media outlets have also covered the precipitous fall of Western Africa's richest country closely.

Some quick background, partly from the BBC and partly from my own recollection:

The conflict began when Muslim and "foreign" (a broad designation in the hyper-nationalist Ivory Coast) rebels (the "New Forces") took up arms against the government of Laurent Gbagbo in response to laws intended to preserve Ivorian control of land and politics. They seized the north half of the country, which they still hold. French forces prevented the rebels from marching on the main city and port of Abidjan and a tense stand off has persisted ever since.

Since the mass of French nationals left, 4,000 French troops--carrying out the controversial Operation Unicorn--have held the rebel line alongside 6,000 U.N. peacekeepers. This buffer area is known as the "confidence zone,"--a"huge misnomer" according to the BBC, which reports that "[n]ot a week goes by without [the UN] being told of pople being killed or of other serious human rights violations."

That's the general background, but the reality is endlessly more complicated. If you think that Iraqi politics is confusing, check out this comment on the Ivorian situation:

Analysts say by calling for the dissolution of parliament, international mediators intended to strengthen [Prime Minister] Banny's authority and ensure that hostile deputies did not block attempts to implement the peace process, as happened last year.

I've been following the Ivory Coast crisis on and off for several years and it took me two readings to make sense of this. But maybe that's the two glasses of Aussie-Rhone hitting the old cerebellum.

Either way, we have a country referred to by the relatively neutral (in this case) British press as a "quagmire" and "the Wild West," occupied by a Western power, accused of occupation and a "constitutional coup d'etat" by the natives. And this isn't Iraq.

One important--or at least superficially important--difference between the two situations is that, unlike the U.S. in Iraq, France is in the Ivory Coast with UN Security Counsel approval. But that approval was only obtained through a botched American attempt at horse-trading: a U.S. vote for France's Ivorian intervention in exchange for a French vote for the American invasion of Iraq . As the Washington Post reported at the time: "Chirac might well explain to President Bush that some foreign interventions are worth the risk, nevertheless. To which the American leader might respond: Cher ami, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you about Iraq." As it turned out, France rode off into the sunset on their American mount, while the French horse failed to turn up and the American's had to walk into Iraq without it. But, the botched deal shouldn't automatically legitimate France's Ivorian foray or invalidate the Iraq war: self-serving diplomacy cannot confer or deny moral authority and the two affairs should stand or fall on their own merits. As of today, with Ivorians surrounding the UN and French buildings in Abidjan and the country facing a growing crisis, it is far from clear which attempt at nation-building is faring better.

2. The president recently announced that, if attacked by terrorists, he is prepared to retaliate with nuclear weapons. The French president, that is. If Bush had said something like that he would have been denounced by, among others, the French president, faster than Cindy Sheehan could say "world's biggest terrorist." According to this report, Chirac "said that France's nuclear forces had been configured for such an event." I don't know what that means--have their missiles been redirected at likely state sponsors of terrorism? If so, I wonder which. I assume leaders in Iran, Syria, and the Sudan do to.

3. This saber-rattling is hardly new to France. It was Chirac who defied broad condemnation to continue testing nuclear weapons in the South Pacific until 1996. And, lest we forget, France actually blew up a Greenpeace vessel in 1985, killing a photographer on board. If an American president had ordered a stunt like the Rainbow Warrior attack (as Mitterrand almost certainly did), or persisted in detonating nuclear bombs against the explicit wishes of American allies, the U.N. would still be issuing rebukes.

As I began, so will I end. France did what it believed was in its national interest in each of these cases. Some of them were less honorable than others, but each was calculated to advance national economic or security goals. A leader's first (and, one might add, only) allegiance should be to his country, if necessary at the expense of international opinion. French politicians have understood this since America was a rebellious itch on Britain's imperial corpus, but Chirac also understands the necessity of personal political survival (especially when the path from the Elysée Palace leads straight to court). So why can't France accept the same principle when it is pursued by an American cowboy? Not because it doesn't understand, but because it would not in France's or Chirac's best interest.