Sunday, March 30, 2003

France and the War in Iraq

Since the war in Iraq began a week and a half ago, I haven’t written anything about the coverage French journalists have provided, mainly because I was, so to speak, lying low. I wanted to see what direction both the war and the French media would take as events progressed. To this point, I can report the following:

My impression of the French media is that it, like the vast majority of the French population, is opposed to the war, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see that the coverage is skewed somewhat. Most notably, French coverage demonstrates two important characteristics that are worth mentioning. The first is that the French are taking advantage of recent difficulties in the war’s progress to display something of an “I told you so” attitude. Depending on the commentator and the station, this can range from rather subtle barbs to clear bias. Of course, this presumes that the war is going badly, and it is this second point which seems most debatable.

In terms of the war’s progress, the French media has more or less taken the view that things are not going well in the field. But in this regard, the French media shares some of the misinformation common among the international media in general. Unfortunately, the French seem to have made this apparent fact the central element of much of their coverage, though I suspect this isn’t a feature unique to the French among their European counterparts. In any case, it suggests a very strange phenomenon. Personally, I’m not an expert on military strategy, though many journalists believe they are.

Beyond the journalists however, there are also the commentators and the presumed experts. On this point, I’ve been seriously disappointed with the French coverage. Over the last week, I watched various French television discussions on the war and I’ve seen some amazing feats of acrobatics. One example includes the issue of the reaction of southern Iraqis to the presence of coalition troops. Prior to the commencement of the war, I remember hearing many French commentators argue that war in Iraq would lead to the dissolution of the country. As the story went, Iraq was just a colonial construction that would quickly splinter into three regions – Shiite, Sunni and Kurd – should Saddam be removed from power. The common argument held that Iraqis were completely lacking in national sentiment. Sadly, the Americans were ignorant of this fact, unlike their enlightened French cousins.

But suddenly, something else happened. Originally it was assumed that when the coalition entered southern Iraq there would be an immediate rush to welcome the invading troops. This was in line with what the French commentators were saying about the lack of Iraqi national sentiment since such a lack would lead to a warm welcome among the Shiites of the south, happy to be rid of the oppressive Baghdad dictatorship. However, when it appeared that this welcome was not immediately evident, at least not according to the media, some of the very French commentators who had only weeks before preached to us the absence of Iraqi national sentiment, now were suddenly explaining the lack of a hardy welcome for the coalition in the south with none other than a theory of strong Iraqi nationalism. Rather than consider the possibility that the Shiites were still uncertain about the eventual outcome of the war, as well as the likelihood that they were being coerced by Saddam’s more radical followers in the southern cities, these same French commentators now completely contradicted themselves claiming that it should have always been obvious to even the most casual observer that Iraqi nationalism was in evidence and undermining coalition efforts. We should have known all along that all Iraqis are proud of their country, though this would still fly in the face of contradictory evidence from the Kurdish region.

The only consistent element in all this was the fact that some French talking heads could once again point to their superior understanding in the face of those ignorant Americans. Indeed, there was something humorous about a pompous commentator self-righteously pointing to the foolishness of the coalition, all the while seemingly ignorant of his own total self-contradiction.

Such behavior isn’t all that troubling in and of itself. All nations, including the US, misrepresent elements of their history and overemphasize the failings of both enemies and occasional allies. And yet, when such misrepresentation becomes endemic, when half-truths and outright lies are repeated ad nauseum on each and every channel and in virtually all journals, the casual observer must begin to wonder exactly what is happening. Moreover, when a nation begins to engage in such obvious misrepresentation, we must also wonder what this portends for that nation. Over the next few days, I will take a look at this problem in more depth focusing on two problem areas in French society: the ideological and the political.

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