Policing Saddam: Chirac enjoys cocking a snook at America France puts business before friendship

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The Independent Online
In the reptilian brain of every French president there slumbers the spectre of Gaullism. The French condemnation of the American bombings of Iraq - which managed to be at once strident and unspoken - is the most recent example. Jacques Chirac is, after all, the first Gaullist president to occupy the Elysee Palace since the death of Georges Pompidou in 1974. By refusing openly to support the actions of Bill Clinton (the man whom he describes as his "friend"), Mr Chirac seized an opportunity to display to the Arab world the difference between French and United States' policies and sensibilities.

There was also, for sure, a European irritation at being presented with a fait accompli and being asked to play along with a domestic US political game. There was something typically Clintonesque about making the rest of the world hostage to the US electoral timetable - something which irritated even his most faithful allies.

But the French disavowal of the Iraqi escapade flowed also from a mixture of old diplomatic traditions and new commercial interests.

French diplomacy has long been haunted by a rather tired notion - "French policy for the Arab world". According to this, France - by virtue of its history, its location, its interests, and above all by its (Gaullist) tradition of independence from the US - has a unique role to play, from Morocco to Iraq, from Lebanon to Libya.

Ideologically, the lobbyists for French Arab policy can be found in the usual bastions of anti-Americanism: from Gaull-ism to Communism. Sociologically, it springs from a certain tradition in the Foreign Ministry which tends to view relations with American colleagues as a kind of rivalry. Culturally, the lobby is rooted in nostalgia for France as a "great power", capable of going toe to toe with US influence in any part of the world.

The French Arab lobby is, with a few exceptions, synonymous with the forces which laboured for a more sympathetic attitude to the Serbs during the Bosnian war. It also occupies the same ground as those calling for a normalisation of relations with Cuba. Mr Chirac is not himself part of this lobby. But many of his advisers are and it can usually count on his support.

This tradition lives comfortably with the commercial interests of French companies. It is no secret that French oil companies were the first to dash to Baghdad to negotiate contracts after the easing of the United Nations embargo on Iraq. There was a time when Iraq was one of the best customers for French exports and the leading supplier of Iraqi credit. More than 20 years ago, a young French prime minister, called Jacques Chirac, welcomed to Paris the Iraqi number two, proclaiming affectionately: "You are my friend." His guest was the upwardly mobile Saddam Hussein.

During the Gulf war, France was a loyal member of the coalition against President Saddam. And since he came to power in May last year, Mr Chirac has even announced a rapprochement with Nato, to the consternation of many old Gaullists in his own party.

But in Arab policy it was inevitable that Mr Chirac would one day noisily assert his exceptionalism. The opportunity was muffed when his Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, tried to negotiate a settlement after Israel attacked Hizbollah in south Lebanon. The fury of the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, cast doubt, even ridicule, on the French initiative. The attack on Iraq gave Mr Chirac the perfect opportunity to mark out his differences from the US. The surprise is not that he distanced himself from the operation; the surprise is that he did not do it sooner.

It is by no means certain, however, that Mr Chirac will draw political benefit from his decision. French public opinion is hard pressed to understand why we should prefer President Saddam to Mr Clinton. In any case, the French have become increasingly uncomfortable with the apparent eagerness of successive governments to cosy up to the most dictatorial regimes in the world.

The starkly commercial dimension of French foreign policy reinforces this public unease. It seems that French officials are ready to ignore a great deal for the sake of a contract.

Independence from the US can still score points in French domestic politics. But America-bashing has little value when it takes the form of a self- interested friendship with the likes of Saddam Hussein.