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Chirac of Arabia

Chirac of Arabia

In the winter of 2002 and the spring of 2003, Jacques Chirac resembled a tornado of political energy focused on a single objective: preventing the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad. The French President deployed all the political and diplomatic forces at his disposal, pushed France’s relations with the United States and Britain to the brink, and provoked an open split in the United Nations to keep the Baathist despot in power in Baghdad.

But why? This is the question that Eric Aeschimann and Christophe Boltanski, two journalists with the Parisian daily Liberation, pose in their new book that studies Chirac’s broader policies with regard to the Middle East. With Chirac riding into the political sunset, the subject may not seem to be of any urgency. But, the two authors show that Chirac’s “Arab legacy” is likely to haunt whoever becomes France’s next president in the spring of 2007.

The bond of friendship that Chirac had established with Saddam Hussein in the 1970s may have been one reason for the French leader’s continued support to the very end of the Baathist regime. Another reason may have been the substantial commercial interests that France had developed in Iraq thanks to the sanctions imposed by the UN after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. It is also possible that Saddam Hussein had helped finance Chirac’s neo-Gaullist party, along with several other French political parties and groups both on the right and the left, for years.

Nevertheless, and contrary to the two authors’ implicit claim that Chirac was pursuing a very personal course on Iraq, the French president was acting in accordance with a well-established French policies that went beyond tactical calculations. Chirac saw his opposition to the war in Iraq as a natural reflection of France’s so-called “Arab policy” as developed by President Charles De Gaulle a quarter of a century earlier. In 1967, De Gaulle reversed France’s pro-Israel policy, as developed by successive Socialist governments in Paris, and initiated a new strategy aimed at wooing the Arabs. This was a natural development if only because the end of the war in Algeria had removed the major cause of Arab hostility towards France.

In the particular case of Iraq, Chirac had even more reason to stick to traditional French policies. The French state-owned oil company, CFP, had been active in Iraq for decades, making it the second most important jewel in the French energy crown after Algeria. By contrast, British and American oil companies had been shut out of Iraq since the late 1950s. The two “Anglo-Saxon” powers did not even have an embassy in Baghdad until the mid 1980s.

Aeschimann and Boltanski are critical of Chirac for what they see as his poor judgment in splitting the Western democracies. Chirac, however, was acting on the basis of traditional French policy, as presented to him by the Quai d’Orsay.

If Chirac made a mistake, it was not in trying to use the UN to stop the fall of Saddam Hussein. His mistake was in thinking that most Arabs did not want Saddam to fall. The truth, however, was that, at least as far as the governing elites were concerned, almost no one in the Arab world was prepared to shed a tear for the Baathist despot.

Even then, Chirac’s gamble may have paid off. Imagine what would have happened if the US and its allies, unable to obtain a specific mandate from the UN to invade Iraq, had called the whole thing off. Chirac would have become a hero with the Baathists in Iraq while Saddam Hussein would have been able to make a spectacular return as a claimant to the leadership of all Arabs. France would have ended up as the only major power that had sided with the winner.

What did Chirac learn from the experience? The authors say he ended up with a “bitter taste in his mouth”. This was not because Saddam Hussein was eventually toppled. What chagrined the French leader most was that, to his horror, he found out that Arab leaders, in fact, resented France’s attitude. Officially hostile to the war in public, most Arab leaders in private reproached France for championing Saddam Hussein’s cause. After the war, that attitude was translated into a virtual freeze of Franco-Arab relations and a significant decline in commercial exchanges.

Aeschimann and Boltanski claim that Chirac learned the lesson and tried to restore France’s position in the US-led Western bloc by joining Washington’s efforts to drive the Syrians out of Lebanon and to put collective pressure on the Khomeinist regime in Tehran with regard to Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. Chirac has also increased France’s military commitment to the war in Afghanistan thus easing pressure on the US armed forces.

The authors raise a number of interesting hypotheses that they do not fully develop. One such is the suggestion that the French and the Arabs share a common sense of “unease” in a world dominated by globalisation as designed, developed and managed by the Americans. The French and the Arabs just want to be “different”, if not actually better than the “Anglo-Saxons” but find it increasingly hard to escape from “the world’s uniformity.”

But how much of that claim is true? Do the French really resent “uniformity made in USA”? There is little research on the subject but anecdotal evidence shows that this is not the case. France is the second largest consumer of American movies after the US itself. It also has the largest number of Macdonald’s hamburger joints outside the US.

There is also no evidence that the Arabs share France’s obsession with “specificity”, whatever that might mean in practical life. In the open market, the Arabs show no particular penchant for choosing French industrial and cultural products.

The authors claim that Chirac saw the Palestinian issue “solely through Yasser Arafat’s eyes.” But here, too, Chirac was following a policy first developed by De Gaulle and later pursued with vigour by President Francois Mitterrand. We must also remember that much of Chirac’s presidency coincided with the period in which Arafat was the darling of the Israelis as well. After all, it was Israel, and not Chirac, that brought Arafat out of his Tunisian oblivion and rebuilt him as head of a state in the making. There are two points that one would have liked the authors to develop further.

The first is the impact on French Middle East policy of the presence o almost seven Muslims in France. Although not all French Muslims are of Arab origin, almost all sympathize with the Palestinians just as most of France’s 800,000 Jews tend to favour Israel. It is possible that Chirac and other French policymakers take that fact into account.

The second point of interest concerns the actual effect of France’s desperate efforts to thumb its nose at the “Anglo-Saxons” whenever possible. Some analysts claim that France’s anti-American posture has done great harm both to the Western democracies and to the cause of stability and peace, especially in the Middle East. Other pundits, however, argue that whatever Chirac did, ultimately had no effect, if only because France lacks the power to make a real difference on any issue. In other words, Chirac has been playing a game of simulation diplomacy in the same way one may play Monopoly on a rainy weekend.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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