French perversity has denied Europe influence over American foreign policy

The best way the French could advocate any course of action in Washington would be to argue against it
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That was a good time to be in France (not that there is ever a bad one). I had come to Bordeaux for a conference on the – US/UK – special relationship, at the ideal moment for such a topic. Though hardly unprecedented, diplomatic tension between France and America has rarely been more heightened. Equally, incomprehension and exasperation between London and Paris are at levels only exceeded in the days when De Gaulle was blocking Britain's entry to the Common Market.

That was a good time to be in France (not that there is ever a bad one). I had come to Bordeaux for a conference on the – US/UK – special relationship, at the ideal moment for such a topic. Though hardly unprecedented, diplomatic tension between France and America has rarely been more heightened. Equally, incomprehension and exasperation between London and Paris are at levels only exceeded in the days when De Gaulle was blocking Britain's entry to the Common Market.

In my paper, I argued that there were more points of comparison between British and French attitudes then a superficial account of the special relationship might suggest. From 1945 onwards, both nations had to devise strategies to deal with imperial decline. In both cases, the outcome included a considerable measure of self- deception. Suez was the point of divergence. After that humiliation, the two countries drew different conclusions. We decided we would never again find ourselves on the wrong side of America; the French, that they would never again trust America.

The French sought solace in Europe. They hoped to obtain a surrogate for empire in the EU, by harnessing its economic power to French purposes: a French jockey on a German horse. We British found our solace in the special relationship. We hoped that it would not only prove to be an equal partnership, but one in which we could provide the intellectual direction: a British jockey on an American horse. They might have the moneybags; we would supply the brains.

Thus far the French horse, though less powerful, has proved more biddable. The American nag will tolerate no foreign jockey. Far from being a partnership of equals, the special relationship has barely been a partnership at all. The Americans have been happy to have us with them, but only as long as we did their bidding. In terms of broad retrospect, the special relationship may seem harmonious; the detailed history makes it clear that the UK found it much harder to manage than most of our politicians were prepared to admit at the time. With the possible exception of the Falklands, there has been no instance of America supporting the UK when it was not in their interests to do so.

The French are happy to seize on that point. They believe that their foreign policy is not only more compatible with a desirable balance of global forces; they think that their superior intellectual and moral stance also expresses French self-interest. They are thoughtful and independent; we, muddled and subservient.

It is easy to make that argument on paper, as many French commentators have recently demonstrated. There is only one problem. It has no purchase on reality. When Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the Franco-German position on Iraq as "Old Europe", one French minister retorted that in growing old, Europe had acquired wisdom. But this apparent intellectuality is just so much flummery; the French are still desperately seeking compensation for their loss of global influence.

This is especially true in Africa. For many years, the French have been working to maintain a neo-colonial presence in Africa and to keep the Francophone countries within their sphere of influence. At present, French troops are trying to restore order in Ivory Coast; a mission comparable to British efforts in Sierra Leone. To judge by the French press, however, one might conclude that Ivory Coast was an issue of vital global concern. The sub-text is clear; the Americans may have their Iraq adventure, France has Ivory Coast. It is an absurd comparison.

France's involvement in Africa has also facilitated corruption at home. For years, French politicians and political parties have enriched themselves by receiving commissions from African leaders in exchange for foreign aid. But the corruption has reached a new depth of squalor with the decision to entertain Robert Mugabe in Paris.President Chirac wants to enhance his role in sub-Saharan Africa, and he may enjoy snubbing Mr Blair, but the Mugabe affair will not enhance France's prestige.

Nor will its stance on Iraq, especially if France eventually stumbles grumblingly into line with the Americans. It could be, indeed, that the French will end up in the worst of all positions, arriving just in time to jeopardise their contacts with the rest of the Arab world, but too late to receive any oil contracts in post-Saddam Iraq. This is not just a matter for poking fun at the French, however; there was an opportunity, which has now been missed. If the French had been more sensible, the EU could have exercised some influence for good.

From late 2001 onwards, three points were clear: the Americans were going to invade Iraq; this would have wider consequences for the entire Middle East; and the Americans had not thought through those consequences.

That is where old Europe could have played a role. Over the past 15 months, European diplomacy should have had one overriding aim: access to American policy-makers, especially over Israel and Palestine. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, American officialdom realised that it did not know nearly enough about the Arab world. The Europeans should have put themselves in the market to remedy that deficiency. They failed, and it is now too late.

During the Bordeaux conference, I was asked what Mr Rumsfeld had meant by his references to Old Europe. I said that the implication was clear, fully intended, and would instantly be grasped by Americans who interest themselves in foreign affairs. By Old Europe, Don Rumsfeld meant two things, and they were not culture and haute cuisine: he was referring to the Second World War and to anti-Semitism.

Even if the Europeans had handled their diplomacy better, many people in Washington would have been reluctant to listen to what they had to say about the necessity of a generous settlement of the Palestinian question. As it is, the Europeans have given those policy-makers the excuse to close their ears.

This is appreciated in London, where senior members of the Foreign Office have tried, in a subtle way, to balance support for America over Iraq with encouraging broader perspectives in the US over the region as a whole. But it is not an easy task, and there was one further, grim irony. London's attempts to talk sense to the Americans over Palestine are complicated by the fact that Europe seems to agree with what London is saying. The French are now in an unfortunate position. The best way in which they could advance any course of action in Washington would be to argue against it.

The special relationship may have had its drawbacks, as the French are quick to point out. Yet if the French had only adopted a more realistic and compliant attitude to the US, they might have been able to assist us in improving American policy-making. But the French now have virtually no relationship with the United States. That will create far greater difficulties, and not only for France.

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