The rift between France and the United States that emerged during the run-up to the war in Iraq persists, despite various recent overtures from France. Even though the campaign of anti-French calumnies has ended, France’s reputation in the United States has been damaged, and the French position on Iraq is still widely misunderstood. As the exclusion of France and other opponents of the war from postwar reconstruction contracts has shown, those who, in Washington, considered that the French had doubly betrayed the United States–by opposing a war that the “senior ally” deemed in its national interest, and by courting votes at the Security Council of the United Nations (as if the United States hadn’t been seeking them too)–do not seem to be ready to forgive.
There are two stories here. One is about the way French dissent was treated in Washington. In the days of General de Gaulle, his attempt to dissuade the Johnson Administration from getting into a quagmire in Vietnam and failing as badly as the French had when they spent eight bloody years (1946-54) fighting Vietnamese nationalism was interpreted by American officials as evidence of the general’s malevolence and anti-Americanism. His suggestions for a settlement were dismissed–and eight years of American war followed, despite the original conviction that the Americans would be welcome as protectors against Communism, untainted by colonialism. But this reaction was not accompanied by any general assault on France. De Gaulle’s position in France, in Europe and in much of the Third World was just too strong, and the general’s support of the United States during the Cuban missile crisis had been impressive.
This time, despite France’s support of and active participation in the war against the Taliban after September 11, there was no such restraint in Washington. Indeed, there was a well-orchestrated campaign of innuendoes, distortions and lies aimed not only at discrediting French arguments but France itself. The campaign only stopped after the French ambassador, a patient man, finally listed the biggest lies (for instance, about French material interests in Iraq, or recent weapons shipments to Iraq) and sent the list to the White House. What was said about France’s fundamental unwillingness to support any war against Saddam Hussein was false. What was not said was that, in fact, the French had informed the United States that they would contribute forces if there was evidence of Saddam’s terminal unwillingness to get rid of his remaining weapons of mass destruction. Nor was it said that, shortly before the war began, the French had made a compromise offer that would have allowed the United States to interpret the unanimous (and ambiguous) Resolution 1441 of November 2002 as a basis for war, and the French (and their supporters) to disagree, without a divisive vote in the Security Council on a second resolution–the famous second resolution that Bush had promised to Blair, that would oblige all members of the Security Council to show whether they were “with us or against us.” The French had predicted that the United States would not win in the Council unless it made concessions, and Washington had, in the end, withdrawn the resolution anyhow for lack of votes.
The Bush Administration also made much of a “hardening” of the French position in mid-January, without revealing that the US representative at the UN had just informed his French counterpart that the United States had decided to go to war very soon–at a moment when the French still hoped for a prolongation of UN inspections. Colin Powell himself, in mid-March, interpreted a statement by President Jacques Chirac asserting that France would not support the second resolution drafted by the United States “under any circumstances” as showing that France would never go to war. Washington was so furious at the French for having rallied enough support on the Security Council to deprive the United States of the legitimation it sought that it encouraged an American boycott of French products, choosing to ignore Germany and remain friendly with Russia (both of which had sided with France), but to punish the French.