11 April 2007

Did France betray its principles?

Every country’s, every nation’s view of itself is illogical; every country’s dealings with other countries exhibits quirks and incomprehensible peculiarities. But it often appears that France is the least logical and most quirky of all the European states in its self-perception and its foreign policy.

Some of it is straightforward enough. It is not Britain that has experienced difficulties in finding a role after losing an empire so much as France. The end of its empire was prolonged and agonizing, involving as it did, two expensive and destructive wars that left deep scars on the country. (In the former British Empire the wars came after the British had left, which, one might argue, shows how sensible or, alternatively, how perfidious they are.)

Before that came the French defeat in 1940 and the occupation with all its moral and social problems that have not yet been worked out properly, as we have written on different occasions.

We have also written about French reaction to the political catastrophe of the Suez adventure and the American role in it. This is covered extensively in “The Great Deception”.

So, a good deal of French behaviour can be attributed to a desire to restore the country’s pre-eminent position in at least some parts of the world, a position that was last in evidence in 1814 despite subsequent French colonial wars. Coupled with it is that strong feeling of resentment against les Anglo-Saxes, the British and, particularly, the Americans. In fact, there are times when it seems that the sole purpose of French foreign policy is to annoy the government and people of the United States.

There are, however, complications. One is the European Union, perceived by many of the French elite as the weapon through which France will dominate European politics and become a great power again. Many of its political structures, economic policies and attempts at foreign policy appear to be largely French in their origins. But they are, as it happens, problematic. To a great extent EC rules can be ignored but not totally and France has been suffering economically from her own policies and from those enshrined in the European Union’s legislation. This has contributed to the rather vicious problems in the banlieus, inhabited largely by North African and Middle Eastern immigrants and their descendants.

Another complication is French self-perception, at least, as it manifests itself among the political elite (though, as we know in this country, what the elite thinks does percolate down to the people in one form or another). Part of that self-perception is French political superiority because of certain events in the second half of the eighteenth century. No need to argue about that here but, it is worth noting, that many of our ideas of equality and democracy grew out of those events. So the French do have a great deal to be proud of. But have they, themselves, lived up to those great ideals? David Pryce-Jones, the historian, journalist, novelist, expert on the Middle East, thinks otherwise and marshals his evidence in “Betrayal – France, the Arabs and the Jews”.

It seems that France’s pernicious meddling in the Middle East – the responsibility for restoring the late unlamented tyrant and terrorist Chairman Yasser Arafat to the position of leadership after the catastrophe of Black September, rests almost entirely with the French government, though other European ones went along with it – is rooted in more than just a resentment of the United States. It goes back to an older concept of France as “Muslim power” (une puissance mussulmane”), a whacky idea but one to which the French Foreign Ministry, the Quai d’Orsay, is addicted to, and has been ever since it was first promulgated as an antidote to the British Empire and its might.

Through anonymous helpers, David Pryce-Jones has managed to have access to numerous documents in the Quai d’Orsay (the only institution in the world that might make me think fondly of our own FCO) and has traced French meddling and politicking in the Middle East, whose result frequently was that any possibility of a peaceful settlement was pushed even further back.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that this view of France is reciprocal and the ferociousness of the Algerian War (something of a surprise to the French, though predictable, given the treatment of the local population during and after the War) has complicated matters apart from landing a very large number of immigrants in France itself, where economic policies and a good deal of visceral racism has made it difficult for them to integrate.

There are two ways of looking at the problem. One is that France has always insisted that all those who come to the country must become French (not for them the follies of multi-culturalism). When this does not happen there is understandable resentment.

There is, however, another point of view (not necessarily contradictory, more complementary) and it is this that David Pryce-Jones describes and analyzes so lucidly. Jews have lived in France for a long time and were the beneficiaries of the early stages of the French Revolution. As Pryce-Jones says, the official French attitude to the Jews was crystallized in those days by the liberal aristocrat, Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, who declared in the Constituent Assembly:
Everything must be refused to the Jews as a nation and everything granted to the Jews as individuals.
This is perfectly logical from the stand-point of an enlightened nation: on the one hand no individual must be discriminated against because of race or religion, on the other hand, there can be no internal nations within the big one. If this had worked out, French Jews would not have objected.

The problem of strong anti-Semitism remained (the Dreyfus case being only the best known example) as well as a visceral fear of Jews and Zionism on the part of the French establishment. Jews were perceived as agents of foreign power: Germany and Russia at first (an extraordinary idea when one thinks of the way Jews were treated in Russia), then of Britain and finally of Zionism “whose core doctrine is that Jews are a nation after all”.

As against that, the Muslims who came to France, in keeping with the notion of the country being “une puissance mussulmane” (which was largely a glorification of colonization) were allowed to keep their own group identity. Often, they had no choice for the above mentioned economic and social reasons.

Not that they were treated as equals. The North African soldiers who fought in the French army in the two World Wars were not given equal pensions. The few remaining veterans will receive that as a result of Chirac watching a recent French film on the subject, “Days of Glory”. The terrible fate of the harkis, the Algerians who fought on the French side, has been described before.

Nevertheless, the outcome of all these different developments has been the existence of virtually self-governing Muslim communities in France with a combined number of votes that is enough to scare any politician (though some have declared that they are voting for Le Pen, because they do not want any more lay-about immigrants and dislike the degeneration of French society).

To make matters worse, the authorities have turned a blind eye to the growing number of anti-Semitic attacks by many of the Muslim groups, insisting well beyond the time it was possible to do so, that the burning of synagogues and Jewish schools, desecration of Jewish cemeteries, vicious attacks on Jewish children in schools and on others in the streets, were all simply hooliganism. Little punishment was doled out and in some cases the attacks well all but condoned by the authorities.

It was the horrific case of Ilan Halimi coupled with the extensive riots of 2005 that brought some sanity into the discussion. (Though, to be fair, few solutions have been proffered.)

In the meantime, France has been conducting her own foreign policy, which has consistently since the thirties, through the protection of the Nazi-leaning Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the patronage of Arafat, support of Khomeini and, later, Saddam down to the present day, has been anti-Israeli, even contemptuous of that country and of its people. (The one exception was a brief period of support before and during the Six-Day War.) At first this was countered by the Left, which was basically pro-Israeli and, also, pro-Algerian. That has changed. The Left is now more viciously anti-Israeli and, let us face it, anti-Semitic than the old-fashioned Right.

That is the situation, says David Pryce-Jones, that France, Europe and the West has to live with. In France it has caused a crisis:
The natural fulfilment of the historic contempt for Israel as a mainstay of Jewish identity is to call into question the position of Jews in French society. For an almost equal period of time, Arabs have been accustomed to the cajolery of the French state, and the expected privilege that goes with it. These two long-drawn but incompatible approaches have finally come to a head and collided.

Commitment to the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel incites the growing underclass of Arabs first to resent Jews and then to force into the public arena the contradiction whereby the French state claims to be protecting Jews at home while doing what it can to oppose Jews in Israel. Confusion that might have been contained at its origins in the Middle East is therefore exploding in the everyday violence experienced in French cities and towns.
Recently there have been some attempts by the French government to rectify the situation at home but the contradiction imposed on it by the continuing policies of the Quai d’Orsay are harder to deal with. There is also some evidence, says Pryce-Jones that French opinion is beginning to turn against traditional French policy in the Middle East. Both have a long way to go.