France is a prickly ally, in Henry Kissinger's words, because from time immemorial it has seen Gallic interests in terms of being in opposition first to those of England and then those of the U.S. This at any rate is the conventional wisdom in foreign policy circles. But what if France is morphing into something else, and it is now propelled to act by radical Muslim interests?
Recently I gave a talk here in which I posited the conventional wisdom, expounding on how France's leadership under President Jacques Chirac was caught in an age-old protracted combat with the Anglo-Saxon world. Afterward a member of the audience approached me and, after the usual polite words of praise for my speech, said he had another version of events.
A few months earlier, as the Franco-American dispute over Iraq was building to a crescendo, he had been at a dinner with a member of President Jacques Chirac's inner circle, who told those around the table that he had just communicated a clear message to the president: If Mr. Chirac persisted in backing the U.S. over Iraq he would face nothing short of an "insurrection" from a sizable portion of France's five million plus Muslims.
The dinner was a private affair, but comments from other politicians bear out that this fear existed. The issue is moreover met head-on in an Internet symposium held by FrontPage Magazine on June 9, which virtually gathered together such luminaries as Jean-Francois Revel, Alain Madelin, Guy Milliere and others (http://www.frontpagemag.com). It's the best thing I've read on this so far.
The proposition that France no longer pursues its traditional interests out of fear of Muslim riots is far trickier to ponder or write about than the "France has always been difficult" version of recent events. First of all they're related: the Muslim angle only adds a new dimension to historical prickliness. One must also make clear that to pose the question is not the same as to be anti-immigration.
What's more, only a liberal solution to the problem, one that rejects identity politics and refuses to entrust the running of Arab communities in France to overseas clerics, would work. It is after all the National Front and other parties on the racist fringe that argue for the separation of the communities, and this is what some French say is producing an Islamist front here that was at the forefront of opposition to the liberation of Iraq.
France's other European allies and the U.S. government also cannot afford to blithely ignore this issue, given its implications. And if it is bad statesmanship to ignore it, it is worse journalism. It is being openly discussed everywhere.
That France was going to be changed by the fact that 10% of its population is now ethnically Arab, a proportion that some demographers say may rise to one-fifth in 20 years, was always a certainty. This change would necessarily have foreign policy implications. America, the land of immigrants par excellence, also has famously considered its population of Irish, Jewish or Cuban descent -- to name only three well-known cases -- in weighing foreign policy options.
The U.S., of course, overrode those considerations by twice waging war with Germany last century, even though Germans are, by far, the largest single ethnic component in the U.S. population. How they would react gave pause to the very Anglo-Saxon Woodrow Wilson prior to committing the U.S. to World War I. During the 1930s, the U.S. ambassador to London, Joe Kennedy, the future president's father, acted out an ancestral Irish Anglophobia by advising FDR not to back Britain. Wilson and Roosevelt ended up doing the right thing anyway.
Did France not do the right thing during Iraq out of similar worries?
Yes, say some writers and politicians who, slowly but with conviction, are beginning to grapple with this loaded issue in public forums. Many of them contend that France will increasingly adopt a more Muslim outlook, rather than integrate the newcomers.
Not all think this is a good thing. Some say the problem is much more generalized too. They contend that, because Islam has not passed through the crucibles of the Reformation, the Counterreformation and the stalemate produced by the Thirty Years' War -- the wrenching philosophical and military experiences that sheared the Christian churches of much political power and rendered them more tolerant -- all Muslims are less accepting of different views. Ergo, liberal society will inevitably have a "clash of civilizations" in its hands with Islam. Even some French Muslims tell me this.
Others say the problem is that fundamentalists are allowed to have great impact with Muslims in France, and are able through Arab-language radio stations and the use of the pulpit to carry out the same campaign of misinformation that has so poisoned U.S. relations with the Muslim world. Mohamed ibn Guadi, an Islamic expert at Strasbourg University, tells me these stations carry anti-American and anti-Semitic content.
Messrs. Revel, Madelin and Milliere were very pessimistic about all this. Mr. Madelin, France's leading liberal voice, said for example: "I hope it's still possible to change the situation, but it would be necessary to act now. Within a few years it will be too late. Already it's very late: the positions adopted by the French government concerning the war upon Iraq were partly dictated by the fear of riots."
"If nothing changes," Mr. Madelin went on, "the French view of the world and the Arab view of the world will become so close, it will be hard to distinguish one from the other."
And Mr. Madelin was optimistic compared to Mr. Milliere, an economist for the Banque de France and a professor at the Universite de Paris. "France today is completely unable to have a French view of the world," he told the FrontPage symposium, neatly answering the question I pose in my first paragraph.
"France does not serve its own interest: As a part of the West, if it was the case, she would have to be on the side of the West, and so on the side of the United States," said Mr. Milliere. "France behaves more and more as if she does not belong to the West anymore and as though she is the leader of the Third World. Doing this, France has nothing to win, maybe just second-rate contracts and an ephemeral popularity among all the frustrated in the world. France will win only one thing, and for a short time, peace inside France: it will avoid riots among Muslims living in France now."
According to Mr. Milliere, and other Frenchmen I've spoken to, the U.S. would actually be doing France a favor if it followed National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's putative dictum, "Forgive Russia; Ignore Germany; Punish France."
"If you make it more obvious and if you find a way to show to the French public that the monumental mistake was made by the present French government, you would help genuine friends of the U.S., like me, Jean-Francois Revel, Yves Roucaute and Alain Madelin, to explain that American interests and French interests are the same in this troubled and dangerous age."
The problems for France won't end there, though. The Bush administration seems genuinely intent on making sure its message gets through to the Muslim world: the U.S. is not anti-Islamic; in fact it is in its interest for the Muslim world to embrace democracy and free enterprise. Right now the U.S. is working hard to bring this reality to Iraq and Palestine.
Can it get through to France's Muslims? "It's very difficult," says Mr. Guadi. Mr. Milliere also made this point to me in a conversation. Perhaps France will be the last Muslim country to be convinced of good U.S. intentions.
Write to Michael Gonzalez at firstname.lastname@example.org