The Wacky World of French Intellectuals
By: Laurent Murawiec
meforum.org | Thursday, April 15, 2004
Whence comes the phenomenon known as fundamentalist Islam or Islamism? Some French analysts from a range of disciplines (international affairs, Orientalism, security studies, journalism) have come to an agreement: it comes from. . . the United States. Despite the inherent implausibility of viewing a movement engaged in a sustained attack on Americans as a diabolical U.S. plot, this argument has considerable persuasive power. It presents Islamism as an American attempt to retard progress in Muslim countries and divide them from their natural allies in Europe. Such ideas come at once from the Right and the Left, representing both nostalgia for the French empire and a residual "Third-Worldism." They have as their common denominator a hatred of the United States and all it stands for. Although still marginal, these ideas about Islamism have spilled over into policy-making circles and have had a skewing effect on French policies toward the Middle East.
America's War on Europe
America is "the last empire" in the view of these analysts, and that explains its aggressive policies. Paul-Marie de la Gorce, a leftist author with a Gaullist perspective on foreign affairs, believes that "the American empire is the only empire in the world today, it is an exclusive hegemony, and it is the first time that such a strange phenomenon occurs in human history."1 According to Senator Pierre Biarnès, in a 1998 book on geopolitics, it is an "unbearable America," a country dead-set on "moral and mercantile hegemony," obsessed with its own "hegemonic design."2
Worse, the United States is a "totalitarian democracy," writes Alexandre del Valle (the pen-name of Arthur Dupont, a French civil servant). It is a lone superpower intent on preventing any other power from emerging and determined to control Europe. Islamism is one whip used against Europe, but there are others:
Washington orchestrated the Asian financial crisis to bring down its dangerous rival Japan, and it uses the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to control Europe against Europe's interests. "Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the mutuality of geopolitical and ideological interests that united America and Western Europe against the Soviet bloc seems to have become partly obsolete," del Valle writes in his somewhat convoluted style. In a more straightforward way, he observes that "the United States has launched a war against the Old World."3
The theme of a war between the Old and the New Worlds recurs often. Pierre-Marie Gallois, a retired general, one of the conceptualizers of de Gaulle's doctrine of "all points" nuclear deterrence, and a well-known figure in the French defense community, holds that it is U.S. strategy to subvert European sovereignty (désouverainiser). From this alleged intent stems Washington's desire to place "Europe under German-American military control." The Germans go along with this because "the concept of Europe is an obsession for the Germans," who have always wanted to rule the continent. "In order to build that empire, the nation-states have to be destroyed," Gallois adds, which explains why the United States was set on undermining the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. France should rebuke the Germans and the Americans, and join with "our traditional allies," Russia and Serbia.
The theme of an American war on Europe has surprisingly wide appeal in elite French circles. François Mitterrand is quoted as saying in private conversation (according to his confidante Georges-Marc Benamou): "France does not know it, but we are at war with America. Yes, a permanent war, a vital war, a war without casualties, at least apparently."4 An opinion piece that appeared on the front page of the most prestigious French daily, co-authored by two members of the European Parliament, sums up the ills of a U.S.-ruled world, where "the market," a "triumphant totalitarianism" which bullies the rest of the world "way beyond the old Kremlin's wildest dreams," has confiscated the sovereignty of nations. The planet is now in the hands of "a mercantile one-worldism" which is the equal of Nazism and Bolshevism, they write. Thankfully, there are "vigorous signs" — the two authors' own exertions, for instance — of resistance to the uniformization of the world imposed by the "American Way of Life."5 They are spokesmen for a heterogeneous coalition of nationalists ranging from Populists of the left and the right to Gaullists, Socialists, and Communists, ultra-Leftists and ultra-Rightists, the whole rag-tag current going under the name of souverainisme.
In short, the United States is dangerous because it is the champion of capitalism and of the lifting of national borders in the interests of a commercial economy. The United States is home to the "new masters of the world," notably multinational corporations which "loot the planet," impose a "sterile uniformity" on it as well as a "streamlined mode of thinking." The influential editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, Ignacio Ramonet, purveys this line of thinking in his book Géopolitique du Chaos. Fortunately, he says, "the specter of decline lurks over "American neo-hegemony."6 The United States is overstretching; it is destroying itself. America will collapse under the weight of its own debt, and will be unable to manage such intractable problems as race, poverty, and unemployment. It is precisely because it is threatened by decline that the United States is so intent on shoring up its hegemony.
The U.S.-Islamist Alliance
"The United States. . . bears a crushing responsibility in the exacerbation of the anti-Western Islamist menace which arises here, there, and everywhere in the world," writes del Valle in a leading Parisian journal of strategic affairs.7 "The growth of Islam and Islamism in the world is inextricably connected to the cultural, political, economic, and geostrategic action of the United States since the beginning of the twentieth century," he adds in a book-length study of this subject.8
However strange this may sound to American ears, it is by no means the thinking of an isolated eccentric. To the contrary, a variety of authors reach this conclusion from radically different premises. While del Valle is essentially hostile to Muslims, François Burgat of the University of Aix-en-Provence is sympathetic to them; he sees a class war within Islam, with the United States on the side of the oppressors: "the American-Israeli strategy . . . aims everywhere to buttress the Arab political status quo and paralyze even the most legitimate opposition by means of repressive policies." The "legitimate" oppositionists Burgat refers to include, it bears noting, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria and various Islamist terrorist groups in Egypt.9 He blames not these movements for violence, but U.S. policy; U.S. imperialism is at the heart of "the frightful mesh of circumstances that produces not bombs, but individuals who come to believe in the necessity of bombs, even at the expense of their own lives." In contrast, Burgat finds it legitimate for Muslims to rebel: "The long string of violence and humiliations, of media lies and vote fraud, of arrests and jailings, of tortures and lawless killings or large-scale slaughters, is what produces, in Algiers or Nablus, political monsters capable of destroying themselves for their cause."10
Richard Labévière, a French-Swiss television reporter, makes the same point in a recent book, ostensibly a work of investigative reporting.
Without seeing the CIA's hand every time history moves faster, and without falling into a paranoid interpretation of the "grand conspiracy," our investigation always ends up identifying more or less direct American responsibilities, more or less converging interests, more or less controlled instrumentalization in many Islamist theaters of operations.Those "Islamist theaters" are Egypt, Algeria, and France; he refers also to Islamic sanctuaries in Bosnia, Chechnya, Albania, the Philippines, Madagascar, South Africa, and even Brazil.11
Gallois believes the United States, by its very nature, must be on the side of the Islamists: "Islam much resembles the capitalist conception of society that prevails in the United States," he asserts in a recent book.12 Labévière also finds a harmony between an America bent on hegemony and radical Islam:
Islamism is fully coherent with the market economy. The theological-political order required by Islam fully conforms with the requirements of American capitalism. America's imperial design feeds on a weakening of any principle of sovereignty and territorial organization of the national bodies politic. This disappearance of political sovereignty foreshadows the untrammeled rule of an uncontrollable globalization [mondialisation] run by business mafias and religious fanatics.13Thus, a significant group of intellectuals in France firmly believes that Islamism, including its terrorist activities, is an instrument of U.S. interests and a creation of American strategists.
The American Network
"The involvement of the United States in the emergence, the expansion and the radicalization of Islamism is a fact . . . The responsibility of the United States in a number of terrorist and other criminal activities is established and incontrovertible," writes Labévière.14 His "incontrovertible" demonstration is based on three assertions:
(1) To secure control over world oil reserves, the United States has long supported the Saudi state. Since the Saudi kingdom is Wahhabi, Washington supports Wahhabi policy, and in fact, Wahhabi policy is identical with deep-seated U.S. impulses. Del Valle ascribes such policies to "the traditional 'religious-based' diplomacy of the Anglo-Saxons,"15 while Labévière finds this tendency deep in American history:
The phrase "In God We Trust" on the dollar bill — the very symbol of world capitalism — reminds us that the Founding Fathers, though they were laymen, invoked divine protection for their undertakings. U.S. diplomacy always has made use of religious movements against communism, and any other opposition to America's hegemonic designs.16In the same spirit, Del Valle recalls that the United States supported the Saudis against Gamal Abdel Nasser's Pan-Arabist crusade, and supported Anwar as-Sadat, a "former member of the Muslim Brotherhood."17
(2) The U.S. backed the Afghan mujahidin as they battled the Soviets through the 1980s:
obsessed by their confrontation with the Soviets, the Pentagon planners banked on the Muslim religion and created a fearful war machine against the Red army: that war machine is armed Islamism.18Del Valle adds that a faction in the U.S. government, headed by Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, conspired to pull the Soviets into a trap in Afghanistan. Aided by strife among political factions in Kabul, its plot succeeded:
The invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in December 1979 … tilted the scales in favor of Brzezinski's camp against U.S. officials who disagreed with his Islamist strategy.19(3) The U.S. government created and runs a Saudi-backed "Wahhabi internationale" to which the Sunni terrorist movements all belong. For example, the CIA has backed the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) since 1991 because "the State Department does not share the distrust of European diplomats, especially French ones, toward Islamism."20 This pro-Islamist policy is global:
A four-year investigation has proven that the true threat originates from elsewhere [than Iran]: from Saudi Arabia and the other petro-monarchies allied with the United States. The world's premier power knows everything about it. In fact, its intelligence services have encouraged it. In various parts of the world, the CIA and its Saudi and Pakistani opposite numbers continue to sponsor Islamism.21The Wahhabi internationale seeks to eliminate Arab regimes that lack a religious underpinning – including what del Valle calls the "reformist and revolutionary" regimes of Iraq, Libya and (notwithstanding its Islamist leadership) Sudan.22 In contrast, the U.S. government is not as opposed to "extremist regimes, such as Iran's," as it pretends to be, observes del Valle. On the contrary, should such regimes prevail, the U.S. will be given credit for having "understood" and even "supported them financially and militarily,"23 a reference to the harebrained Iran/contra affair of the mid-1980s. Washington also supports the FIS in Algeria, and needs to "control the Mediterranean and appear as the protector of Islam." This explains why it intervened to support the Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims.
Why are Americans so involved in a conspiracy to spreading radical Islam? Lesser reasons offered by our group of authors include: (1) Access to the Muslim market of not just "one billion consumers," but an "ideal, non-competitive market."24 (2) Compensating for America's pro-Israel policies.25 (3) Appeasing "the two great Muslim-American lobbies, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Council on American Islamic Relations"26 (which surely must come as a surprise to those organizations). (4) More seriously, keeping the world's major energy sources and reserves under its exclusive control.
(5) Promoting Israel's security. For the United States, writes Labevière, "the defense of the Jewish state remains a priority. . . [and] a majority of observers view Israel as an issue of U.S. domestic politics. It impinges on electoral campaigns and influences permanently the political and economic decisions of the world's premier power."27 In other words, U.S. policy is controlled by the Jewish lobby on behalf of Israel. And Israel, continues the fearless Swiss analyst, is a theocratic state. Therefore, it makes complete sense that Jewish leaders, pulling the strings of fundamentalist-Protestant America, should support Islamic radicals: "Complementary enemies, Islamism and Zionism thus work for the same aims," namely, "dismantling the Arab states," destroying "the nation-states of the entire Arab Muslim world." Truth be told, "Islamism and Zionism are twin enemies of the same process which prevents a just peace in the Middle East and the beginnings of a fair settlement of the Palestinian question (the victims of an unambiguous ethnic cleansing)." This logically stems from "the theocratic foundations of the Jewish State, which has not given up on its project of Greater Israel."28
(6) Fear of Iraq and its ties to Europe. Iraq has a special place in the view of Del Valle and his colleagues:
For Tel Aviv, the Iraqi State and the nationalist Arab movements close to socialism were more dangerous than Islamist Iran. Baghdad was in the process of acquiring the Arab world's first civilian nuclear industry thanks to scientific cooperation with France, which was about to sell Iraq a 700-megawatt nuclear plant. Both countries insisted that the nuclear plant was meant for civilian use and the supplying of electricity to Baghdad, but Israel was afraid that it could be used to serve atomic bombs meant for its own destruction. Thus the Israeli army's espionage service Aman decided to break Saddam Husayn's nuclear project by brute force. . . . Americans and Israelis refused to allow lay Iraq what they tolerated from fundamentalist Pakistan.29This benign view of Saddam's designs is complemented by a touching description of his policies:
Regardless of the dictatorial character of Saddam Husayn's regime, it is not wrong to say that this leader, through the Ba`th ideology and his partly pre-Muslim conception of the Iraqi and Arab nation, tried to create the conditions of a philosophical and scientific opening of the Arab Islamic world.30Such support for Saddam is quite widespread in France. Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the minister of the interior (meaning he is responsible for the police and domestic security), insists that by hitting Iraq, "the Americans are paving the way for a fundamentalist rebellion that is hostile to the West … maintaining the embargo against Iraq is a shame."31 (A past president of the France-Iraq Association, Chevènement has long been a defender of Saddam's role as a modernizer and Westernizer; he resigned his position in January 1991 as minister of defense in protest against Operation Desert Storm.) Gallois shares these views and has voiced them for nearly a decade. He may slap Saddam Husayn on the wrist ("Granted, Baghdad was wrong to invade Kuwait, and also to seek ownership of weapons of mass destruction") but the Iraqi leader's foibles pale in comparison with the merits of his regime.32
(7) Crushing Europe, Russia, and Slavic Orthodoxy. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, weakening Europe has become the main concern of U.S. foreign policy. To contain the "totalitarian democracy" coming out of the United States, a mix of religious fundamentalism and capitalist greed, Europe should ally with Russia and the Orthodox world. Europeans and Muslims are natural allies, Americans invented Islamism as a means to sow disharmony between the two sides.
More, Washington supports "irredentist Islamic-nationalist guerillas that pine for the Ottoman Empire and that can be linked to international terrorists and organized criminals, and of course to the oil-rich countries that have been funding the Islamic terrorism for fifty years." It encourages these movements to "expel the 'infidel occupier': the Yugoslav, Macedonian, Greek (in Thrace and Cyprus) regimes, in the name of a policy of 'neo-containment' — against the Slav-Orthodox world and the nations that refuse American hegemony."33 Gradually, Washington's design is unfolding: it is to create a "neo-Ottoman [military] force" through the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, which del Valle describes as composed of Azeris, Turks, Georgians, Albanians, and Macedonians.34
Fallen empires are jealous and vindictive, and from the bottom of their smallness, they resent their successors. As far as the Arab world is concerned, some in France still have what may be called "Sykes-Picot envy," and wish that France's Mediterranean and Middle Eastern turf had remained virgo intacta, free for France to lord over. This envy sometimes reaches a fever pitch. Biarnès's analysis leads him to an extraordinary rhetorical crescendo: The world today is made out of "so many nations, great and small, which are increasingly tempted to adopt, admittedly with some rhetorical excess, the famous words of Cato the Elder: 'Delenda est America!'" ("America must be destroyed!").35 In like spirit, Richard Labévière asserts in the conclusion to his book that
The intoxication of the dollar — In God We Trust — sweeps everything before it: borders, institutions, cultures, states, and nations. The future belongs to McDonald's and armed prophets.36The reference to McDonald's is not fortuitous, for a number of (French-owned) McDonald's restaurants were trashed in 1999 by mobs of angry farmers. The arrest of one of their leaders provided an opportunity for a loose alliance of farmers, left-wing unionists, populist politicians, communists, Greens, neo-Gaullists (like Charles Pasqua), and the Catholic ultra-right (Philippe de Villiers) to unite in their rejection of "the American diktat," a phrase often used by the leading fascist politician of France, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The United States has become the metaphor for everything that is wrong, dangerous and threatening. France stands against Walt Disney cartoons, hamburgers, and, as Gallois once told this author in private conversation, the "Negrified culture" of rock and pop.
The idea of a conspiracy of cosmopolitan money to weaken the old nations of Europe is an old one: it appeared in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and in its countless imitations. This brazen anti-Semitism dovetails with a long tradition of left-wing intellectual anti-Americanism. Much of the French left and ultra-left has shared this view of a degenerate, imperialistic, capitalist United States.37 Jean-Paul Sartre in his time and Jean Baudrillard today ("Every country in the world today is caught between two enemies: its own minorities and America"38) make the same kinds of arguments.
Alexandre del Valle writes of American culture that it "is a culture of subversion conceived to uproot and weaken the peoples that are subjected to it passively. The moral and cultural disintegration of the European nations caused by the Americanization of the minds and mores"39 is the fundamental problem. On account of not being "organic," "homogenous" and "natural," the United States is a degenerate nation. The "Epicurean Occidental-American culture" is all-destructive; it fosters "the social and moral disintegration" of Europe. What can the Old World do to defend itself from "cultural Americanization and materialism?" He has specific ideas about "a renaissance of Europe's spiritual identity" that will be made possible by the fact that
the McWorld culture will sooner or later be doomed to destruction, given its inherently anti-traditional and heterogeneous, fragile nature. Its nihilism generates sterility in all meanings of the word, it appears fundamentally as a culture in decomposition, which is organically necessary to American imperialism.
It is, in short, a "culture of death."40
Hating the United States has been a consolation for France's decline. It is also a way to give some meaning to a world French intellectuals view in Manichean terms. Léon Poliakov's profound concept of the "devil's causality," the omnipotent Satanic principle that explains everything, in particular the great conspiracies that run the world but will ultimately be defeated by the righteous,41 plainly applies to the ideas discussed here.
Is Anyone Listening?
How significant are Labévière, del Valle, Burgat, Gallois, et al.? Their books are not best-sellers; their names are not well-known. Most French people, confronting these ideas in their raw state, would find them outlandish.
But then, their views are published and reproduced. These are not isolated individuals preaching in the desert, but a genuine current. Each of them uses the others as references to buttress his credibility. These theories would be confined to the fringes of French public affairs were they not feeding into the souverainiste current which is having an indisputable impact on political thinking. Their writings are often published by the same publishing houses and journals.42 They are also spread, in softened form, in influential journals (like Le Monde diplomatique) as well as in many left-wing, right-wing and ultra-right journals of varied circulation. Some of their ideas, debated in academic and intellectual circles, find audiences in the diplomatic service and other parts of the government. Part of this inventory of ideas finds its way into the political mainstream through better known, if less extreme spokesmen, such as the leftist politician Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the critic Régis Debray, or the philosopher, communist-turned-Islamist (and violent anti-Semite) Roger Garaudy.
More important than their practical political impact, these ideas feed the upsurge of anti-American sentiment in today's France. The imaginative generalizations and outright ineptitudes described here stem largely from a resentment of American power. The United States has convincingly shown up de Gaulle's grandiose and exaggerated view of France's international role and power, which always was largely based on make-believe, but which was persuasive for some years. Rude reality — as represented by the United States — is unpleasant, and, consequently, disliked. De Gaulle at least had historical achievements to back up his claims. His putative heirs have none. He could make claims, however fanciful. They must make boasts, however fatuous. As Talleyrand observed with his characteristic sharpness: "Tout ce qui est exagéré est insignifiant" ("Everything exaggerated is insignificant").
Laurent Murawiec is a former Rand Corp. analyst who is now a Senior Fellow with the Hudson Institute.
1- Marie de la Gorce, quoted in Ignacio Ramonet, Géopolitique du chaos (Paris : Galilée, 1997), p. 45.
2 Pierre Biarnès, Le XXIè siècle ne sera pas Américain (Paris : Editions du Rocher, 1998), p. 9.
3 Del Valle, "Genèse et actualité," p. 32.
4 Quoted by Jean-Pierre Péroncel-Hugoz in his "Afterword" to del Valle's book, Islamisme et Etats-Unis, p. 345.
5 William Abitbol and Paul-Marie Coûteaux, "Souverainisme, j'écris ton nom," Le Monde, Sept. 30, 1999.
6 Ramonet, Géopolitique du chaos, p. 40.
7 Alexandre del Valle, "Genèse et actualité de la 'stratégie' pro-islamiste des Etats-Unis," Stratégique, Feb.-Mar. 1998, p. 42.
8 Alexandre del Valle, Islamisme et Etats-Unis: Une alliance contre l'Europe (Lausanne: l'Age d'Homme, 1999), p. 316.
9 François Burgat, L'Islamisme en face (Paris: La Découverte, 1996), also at http://msanews.mynet/scholars/Burgat/peril.
10 Burgat, L'Islamisme en face, at http://msanews.mynet/scholars/Burgat/peril.
11 Richard Labévière: Les dollars de la terreur: les Etats-Unis et l'Islamisme (Paris: Grasset, 1999), p. 16.
12 Pierre M. Gallois, La France sort-elle de l'Histoire? (Lausanne: L'Age d'Homme, 1998), p. 40.
13 Labévière Les dollars de la terreur, p. 23.
14 Labévière, Les dollars de la terreur, p. 222.
15 Del Valle, "Genèse et actualité," p. 32.
16 Labévière, Les dollars de la terreur, p. 15.
17 Del Valle, "Genèse et actualité," p. 34.
18 Labévière, Les dollars de la terreur, p. 15.
19 Del Valle, "Genèse et actualité," p. 39.
20 Del Valle, "Genèse et actualité," p. 44.
21 Labévière, Les dollars de la terreur, pp. 8-9.
22 Del Valle, "Genèse et actualité," p. 31.
23 Del Valle, Islamisme et Etats-Unis, p. 14.
24 Gallois, La France, p. 40.
25 Gallois, La France. The author explains the dismemberment of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia as the result of a conspiracy involving the United States, Germany, the Vatican, and Croatia.
26 Del Valle, "Genèse et actualité," p. 47.
27 Labévière, Les dollars de la terreur, p. 222.
28 Labévière, Les dollars de la terreur, p. 432.
29 Del Valle, "Genèse et actualité," p. 37.
30 Del Valle, "Genèse et actualité," p. 61.
31 Quoted by del Valle, "Genèse et actualité," p. 62.
32 Gallois, La France, p. 21.
33 Del Valle, Islamisme et Etats-Unis, p. 7.
34 Del Valle, "Genèse et actualité," p. 62.
35 Biarnès, Le XXIè siècle, p. 85.
36 Labévière, Les dollars de la terreur, p.433.
37 James Ceaser, Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).
38 Jean Baudrillard, "Duplicité totale de cette guerre", Libération, Apr. 29, 1999.
39 Del Valle, Islamisme et Etats-Unis, p. 312.
40 Del Valle, Islamisme et Etats-Unis, p. 316.
41 Léon Poliakov, La causalité diabolique (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, c1980-c1985).
42 L'Age d'Homme, of Lausanne, Switzerland. is interesting. Previously a publisher of Slavic-language literary masterpieces, it became in the late 1980s a hotbed of ultra-nationalist pro-Serbian agitation. Vladimir Dmitrievitch, its Serbian director, is linked to ferociously anti-Western institutions in Moscow, as well as with fascist writer Alexander Zinoviev.
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