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the rat that roared

  1. Snooker

    5,748 posts.
    THE RAT THAT ROARED
    Christopher Hitchens
    Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2003

    To say that the history of human emancipation would be incomplete without the French would be to commit a fatal understatement. The Encyclopedists, the proclaimers of Les Droites de l'Homme, the generous ally of the American revolution…the spark of 1789 and 1848 and 1871, can be found all the way from the first political measure to abolish slavery, through Victor Hugo and Emile Zola, to the gallantry of Jean Moulin and the maquis resistance. French ideas and French heroes have animated the struggle for liberty throughout modern times.

    There is of course another France--the France of Petain and Poujade and Vichy and of the filthy colonial tactics pursued in Algeria and Indochina. Sometimes the U.S. has been in excellent harmony with the first France--as when Thomas Paine was given the key of the Bastille to bring to Washington, and as when Lafayette and Rochambeau made France the "oldest ally." Sometimes American policy has been inferior to that of many French people--one might instance Roosevelt's detestation of de Gaulle. The Eisenhower-Dulles administration encouraged the French in a course of folly in Vietnam, and went so far as to inherit it. Kennedy showed a guarded sympathy for Algerian independence, at a time when France was too arrogant to listen to his advice. So it goes. Lord Palmerston was probably right when he said that a nation can have no permanent allies, only permanent interests. It is not to be expected that any proud, historic country can be automatically counted "in."

    However, the conduct of Jacques Chirac can hardly be analyzed in these terms. Here is a man who had to run for re-election last year in order to preserve his immunity from prosecution, on charges of corruption that were grave. Here is a man who helped Saddam Hussein build a nuclear reactor and who knew very well what he wanted it for.

    Here is a man at the head of France who is, in effect, openly for sale. He puts me in mind of the banker in Flaubert's "L'Education Sentimentale": a man so habituated to corruption that he would happily pay for the pleasure of selling himself.

    Here, also, is a positive monster of conceit. He and his foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, have unctuously said that "force is always the last resort." Vraiment? This was not the view of the French establishment when troops were sent to Rwanda to try and rescue the client-regime that had just unleashed ethnocide against the Tutsi. It is not, one presumes, the view of the French generals who currently treat the people and nation of Cote d'Ivoire as their fief. It was not the view of those who ordered the destruction of an unarmed ship, the Rainbow Warrior, as it lay at anchor in a New Zealand harbor after protesting the French official practice of conducting atmospheric nuclear tests in the Pacific. (I am aware that some of these outrages were conducted when the French Socialist Party was in power, but in no case did Mr. Chirac express anything other than patriotic enthusiasm. If there is a truly "unilateralist" government on the Security Council, it is France.)

    We are all aware of the fact that French companies and the French state are owed immense sums of money by Saddam Hussein. We all very much hope that no private gifts to any French political figures have been made by the Iraqi Baath Party, even though such scruple on either side would be anomalous to say the very least. Is it possible that there is any more to it than that? The future government in Baghdad may very well not consider itself responsible for paying Saddam's debts. Does this alone condition the Chirac response to a fin de regime in Iraq?

    Alas, no. Recent days brought tidings of an official invitation to Paris, for Robert Mugabe. The President-for-life of Zimbabwe may have many charms, but spare cash is not among them. His treasury is as empty as the stomachs of his people. No, when the plumed parade brings Mugabe up the Champs Elysees, the only satisfaction for Mr. Chirac will be the sound of a petty slap in the face to Tony Blair, who has recently tried to abridge Mugabe's freedom to travel. Thus we are forced to think that French diplomacy, as well as being for sale or for hire, is chiefly preoccupied with extracting advantage and prestige from the difficulties of its allies.

    This can and should be distinguished from the policy of Germany. Berlin does not have a neutralist constitution, like Japan or Switzerland. But it has a strong presumption against military Intervention outside its own border and Herr Schroeder, however cheaply he plays this card, is still playing a hand one may respect. One does not find German statesmen positively encouraging the delinquents of the globe, in order to reap opportunist advantages and to excite local chauvinism.

    Mr. Chirac's party is "Gaullist." Charles de Gaulle had a colossal ego, but he felt himself compelled at a crucial moment to represent une certaine idée de la France, at a time when that nation had been betrayed into serfdom and shame by its political and military establishment. He was later adroit in extracting his country from its vicious policy in North Africa, and gave good advice to the U.S. about avoiding the same blunder in Indochina. His concern for French glory and tradition sometimes led him into error, as with his bombastic statements about "Quebec libre." But--and this is disclosed in a fine study of the man, "A Demain de Gaulle," by the former French leftist Regis Debray--he always refused to take seriously the claims of the Soviet Union to own Poland and Hungary and the Czech lands and Eastern Germany. He didn't believe it would or could last: He had a sense of history.

    To the permanent interests of France, he insisted on attaching une certain idée de la liberté as well. He would have nodded approvingly at Vaclav Havel's statement--his last as Czech president--speaking boldly about the rights of the people of Iraq. And one likes to think that he would have had a fine contempt for his pygmy successor, the vain and posturing and venal man who, attempting to act the part of a balding Joan of Arc in drag, is making France into the abject procurer for Saddam. This is a case of the rat that tried to roar.

    (Mr. Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair, is a visiting fellow at Berkeleyand the author, most recently, of "Why Orwell Matters" [Basic, 2002].)

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