“We were then cheese-eating surrender monkeys, now we are warmongers; this is just silly, simplistic labelling,” sighed a French diplomat in New York. “The facts are, of course, much more nuanced and complicated.” One could not help feeling, though, that he quite liked the changing view of his country in the eyes of Americans.
Francois Hollande’s government has been lauded for stopping a supposedly bad deal for the West and Israel over Tehran’s nuclear programme from taking place. The cheering has come from those who had castigated France for refusing to back the invasion of Iraq a decade ago. “Vive la France” was the front-page headline in the conservative Wall Street Journal. “Vive la France” cried Republican Senator John McCain on Twitter. “France had the courage to prevent a bad nuclear agreement,” he added. Fellow Senate hawk Lindsay Graham foresaw a robust role for Paris in a troubled region: “The French are becoming very good leaders in the Middle East,” he said.
Iran held the French to blame for sabotaging the chances of a resolution in the talks held in Geneva earlier this month; the claim has been backed by some Western officials. According to this version, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who considers France his second home, was said to have been greatly dismayed by the Gallic intransigence. It would, he feared, strengthen the hardliners in Congress pushing for even more punitive sanctions against Tehran and encourage the Israelis to continue their aggressive lobbying against an agreement.
The French position is that it was the joint view of the international negotiating states – the P5+1 group – that Iran did not go far enough at the talks: a meeting between Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and Mr Kerry endorsed this stance.
There is, however, a degree of ambiguity about the supposed divisions among the international states. The Iranian newspaper Keyhan, whose editorial policies are dictated by the office of Ayatollah Khamenei, accused Paris of acting as “servants of the Zionist regime”. However another newspaper, Khorasan, noted “It seems France was playing the ‘bad cop’ while America, Britain and Germany were playing the ‘good cop’ in the talks.”
The French diplomat was keen to confide: “The Americans and the Iranians had been carrying out bilateral talks for months and this had resulted in a text already prepared when Geneva started. We were surprised.
“We pointed out the problems the text had on things like Arak [a heavy water plant] and what exactly the Iranians were going to do with their 20 per cent enriched uranium. The others realised these were loopholes that needed to be closed. We know the Iranians, the way they operate. We maintain links with them, unlike the US and the UK. We still have an embassy there. Of course we want a deal as well, but we should not rush into it.”
President Hollande, arriving in Tel Aviv on Sunday, declared: “France will not give way on nuclear proliferation. So long as we are not certain that Iran has renounced nuclear arms, we will keep in place all our demands and sanctions.” But an interim agreement is likely to take place sooner rather than later, possibly as early as this week, with the talks resuming today. It is expected to be based on Tehran keeping to an enrichment ceiling of 3.5 per cent. The feeling in Washington and London is that the French are unlikely to stand in the way.
Some critics have accused the French of acting the way they did because of lucrative defence contracts with Sunni Saudi Arabia, the implacable opponent of Shia Iran. But this too simplistic. Having been proved right over Iraq, the French have been robust in protecting what it considers to be French and, by extension, Western interests.
The French handled a tough campaign well in Afghanistan and are likely to have more troops than Britain there as advisors after Nato’s combat mission ends next year. They took the lead in the Libyan intervention and stepped in to repulse the Islamist offensive in Mali. While David Cameron suffered the embarrassment of the Commons defeat on military strikes on Syria, Mr Hollande could assert he, at least, was standing by Barack Obama.
Visiting a Manhattan diner with my French friend, I asked the waiter whether they still served freedom fries, then had to go into a laborious reminder of how they were supposed replace French fries following the fallout over Iraq. “Oh that, yeah, it was one of those cuckoo ideas from Bush supporters”, said the manager with a Bronx accent. “Never caught on. Most people around here don’t even want to remember Iraq. Iran? Well, let them have a nuclear programme if they want to, the US can’t worry about everything in every part of the world. We can always zap them later if they ever become a real problem.”