Tuesday, January 28, 2003

If You Were French

While I’ve been critical of the French government’s latest move to align itself with Germany on the issue of Iraq, I think it is worth taking a look at how the average Frenchman feels about the possibility of war in the Middle East. According to opinion polls, the majority of France’s citizens oppose military action, but why?

Let’s start with the domestic situation in the nation. If you’re French and you look around your country, you have reason to be scared. France has one of the largest Muslim populations of any European nation, and while the majority of French Muslims are not particularly violent or directly aligned with radical Islam, there are a number, especially among the young, who are highly sympathetic to figures such as Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. It was just last year that Muslim radicals set fire to Jewish synagogues and carried out attacks on Jews in cities around France. In addition, the crime rate in France has been rising steadily over the last decade, and while the politically correct would like to deny it, much of the increase in crime is occurring in the Muslim dominated suburbs.

Now, when the attacks against the synagogues occurred, some commentators in the United States suggested that this was old European anti-Semitism lifting its ugly head once more. I tend to disagree with this view, but only in part. In fact, it was radical Muslims carrying out the attacks, not your traditional European Frenchman. On the other hand, having lived in both North America and Europe, it is fairly obvious that European culture is generally more inclined to ridicule Jews with a degree of old-world contempt than is racially sensitive North America. But I think we should be careful on this point, since most contemporary Europeans aren’t particularly anti-Semitic. Indeed, many are rather sensitive to the charge of being anti-Semitic and were shocked by the destruction of the synagogues. That could be changing however.

If there is a degree of hostility toward Jews it seems to come more from public conceptions of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Whatever view one takes of this issue, and I tend to find the overall European position to be rather biased in favor of the Palestinian cause, the ultimate effect it has on your average French citizen is to incite more fear. In the minds of many French people, the conflict in the Middle East is recurring in their own country. As a result, many perceive a possible attack on Iraq as yet another spark that would light a fire in the cities of France, with radical Muslims attacking anyone and everyone.

This problem is aggravated by another interesting fact. The Muslims recently arrested in Spain and Italy came not from Iraq or Iran, but from North Africa, the original home of many European Muslims. Increasingly, it appears as though countries like Algeria are turning into a base for recruiting and training terrorists. On the whole, Iraq and Iran are not the direct source of terrorists at least in terms of people willing to take up the cause. Indeed, the two members of the infamous axis of evil are, in terms of their citizenry, probably less prone to terrorism than are those in northern Africa or Saudi Arabia for that matter. This can lead one to argue that the US should be focusing on places like Algeria and Morocco rather than Iraq and Iran. At the same time however, we must remember that while Iraq and Iran may not provide a lot of bodies for terrorist attacks, their governments can funnel both funds and weapons to terrorists drawn from other nations. Iran and Iraq provide the material and capital, northern Africa and Saudi Arabia have the manpower to use it.

Connected to this dynamic is another point. Though it may sound harsh, it is a view generally held, and most often by my Iranian and Iraqi friends, that North African Muslims are, to quote their words, “barbaric.” In other words, many people coming from Iraq and Iran, often better educated and westernized than North Africans, tend to view their Muslim cousins from Algeria, Libya and Morocco with a degree of disdain. Simply put, they find them coarse and violent, lacking in historical depth and refinement. This, I think, is a view often shared by many Europeans. And yet, most Muslims living in Europe today come from precisely these countries (the case is slightly different for Germany where many Muslims are Turks). The situation is especially evident in France due to that country’s strong connections with Algeria and Morocco and the steady flow of immigrants coming weekly from these countries. By contrast, there are a number of Iranian and Iraqi exiles, especially in Paris, though there are no longer great waves of immigration coming from these countries.

Taking this into account, we shouldn’t be surprised that the French feel uneasy. That said, it is worth asking what the French have done to protect themselves in this situation. Here, however, is where things get even worse. For quite some time, the French government along with governments across Europe and at EU headquarters in Brussels, did little or nothing about the problem. Throughout much of the 1990’s, as the problem was worsening, Europe was governed by complacent leftist or coalition governments that were so busy obsessing over humanitarianism, protecting human rights and building their precious European Union, that they refused to take account of the growing fear among their own people. Wedded to a European version of the multicultural ideology, these governments did nothing but lecture their people on the need to build bridges, to engage in dialogue, to be inclusive, to defend human dignity. And all the while, radical Muslims were thumbing their noses at old Europe. Finally, Europeans began to react and started voting for political parties willing to address these issues. Not surprisingly, the EU and the self-righteous in Europe’s various national governments heaped vitriol on these parties, accusing them of xenophobia and racism. To some extent, Israel and the US joined in. This was a mistake. Europeans were feeling desperate, left out in the cold by their do-nothing governments, and were forced to turn to more radical candidates in order to get their leaders’ attentions.

This is precisely what happened in France in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into the second round of the presidential election. Jacques Chirac took the hint, and after he and his party was elected to govern France, he began addressing security issues across the country. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French Interior Minister, has taken some fairly dramatic steps considering this is France, and that has endeared him to many voters. The left, not surprisingly, is livid, but the electorate, by and large, seems pleased.

But before we get too carried away congratulating the French government, we must remember it was contempt for the voters on the part of Europe’s politicians that got the continent into this position in the first place. The European political elite, which tend to disdain actual democratic procedures in favor of their own educated views about how to implement democracy, put their ideological conceptions before the good of their countries. This shouldn’t be surprising since these are the same politicians attempting to dismantle their nations, ceding sovereignty to the European Union. How could they possibly have a clue what would be good for their nations?

Living with an increasingly hostile Muslim population, burdened with governments that rarely pay attention to the concerns of the electorate, and watching with uncertainty as their nations are eaten up by an EU that seems to have no idea where its eastern border ends while its largest economy – Germany – is tanking, it isn’t at all unreasonable that Europeans would prefer to avoid yet another possibility for instability in their world. When we add to this the fact that the European media, in a highly irresponsible manner, continues to portray George Bush as a bumbling idiot leading a nation determined to rule the world with an iron fist, I can’t help but feel sorry for the Europeans. In many respects, there is a sense that Europe is heading toward yet another disaster, shades of 1870 and 1920 all over again.

My sympathy, however, does not change my views on the need to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and, in the long run, to make every effort to bring about a positive change in the Middle East, a region that has been largely without effective government since before the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

A few final points deserve mention. As I’ve written previously, the French and the Germans, during the last week, made a great deal of their friendship during the fortieth anniversary of the signing of the historic accord between the two nations. Unfortunately, the occasion included: the French government’s sharp turn away from their previous position on Iraq, along with the betrayal of US Secretary of State, Colin Powell; the announcement that France and Germany, as the motor of Europe, were seeking a dual presidency for the EU and were now setting the terms for what they felt should be the unified European position on Iraq – to the great consternation of countries such as Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Italy who support the Americans; and an overall sense that this united France and Germany (who, by the way, are now talking about some sort of joint citizenship for their nationals which more or less flies in the face of the whole EU project to start with – a “union within the union” as the Spanish foreign minister phrased it) are now going to launch themselves onto the international scene in increasingly direct competition, both economically and geopolitically, with the United States. Considering the results of such ventures in the past, Europeans may well be worried.

And how is this great diplomatic role for the new Franco-German alliance intended to play out? Well, from the French side at least, it seems to include an extensive engagement in Africa. So far, that has two elements. The first is inviting Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe to come to Paris for a meeting dealing, ostensibly, with human rights and democracy. The logic behind this is that Zimbabwe is one of the important players in ending the longstanding conflict currently underway in the Democratic Congo. The problem is that this goes against the ban on travel to the EU by Zimbabwean officials. It also appears to be a slap in the face to the British and the Commonwealth, since Zimbabwe is a former British colony. Understandably, one might argue that Britain shouldn’t be so vain as to think it alone should deal with its old African colonies to the exclusion of the French. I would grant that except that it is difficult to see how a man like Mugabe, who has incited violence in his own country, will do much to improve the situation in the Congo. Similarly, in terms of the second point, which relates to colonialism and imperialism – words often associated with the contemporary United States – we should mention that France, the old colonial power in the Ivory Coast, has now taken on an effort to bring peace to this nation, currently undergoing civil conflict. While I fully support France engaging in such efforts, it is an open question as to how this will all turn out. The latest signs aren’t all that good. As I write this, violent protests continue in the capital where supporters of the president are angry with the French government who they feel forced their leader into making concessions that allow rebels to take positions in the government. The protestors have attacked various French buildings in the city, chanting such phrases as “French go home” and “If there’s trouble in Ivory Coast, French throats will be cut.” The concern in the region is that the peace accord brokered by France might spark new violence, violence that could spill over into neighboring countries already destabilized by their own internal conflicts. If I were French, I think I’d be a bit concerned. And you can’t help but wonder, are the French providing an example of how not to win the peace in a country, in order to show the Americans how it shouldn’t be done in Iraq? Incidentally, France didn’t bother to get the approval of the United Nations Security Council or the EU before embarking on this mission. Funny that.


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