Opposition to war remains strong in France

Eighty-seven percent oppose the use of force, and some fear the war could destabilize the region.

EBridget Brown Even as final exams approach, Romain L’Hullier, a fourth-year business management student at the Université Jean Moulin Lyon III, skips studying and sometimes classes to organize and participate in antiwar protests, rallying others to do the same.

L’Huillier is the president of Lyon III’s division of the Union Nationale des Etudiants de France, a student association of 20,000 members nationally and 1,000 locally here in Lyon, which has been at the forefront of French opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

“America made a big mistake and the future will show it,” L’Huillier said, capturing a sentiment shared by the majority of French people.

As the U.S.-led war in Iraq

toughens, opposition in France, and throughout Europe, remains strong. In France, 87 percent opposed the use of force in Iraq, according to a recent poll in Le Figaro. Many here said in interviews they believe the U.S.-led war is being waged purely for economic reasons and fear it will further destabilize the volatile Middle East.

Whatever the outcome, the war has already splintered old alliances with implications that many here say could resonate across the Atlantic long after the war in Iraq is over.

At home, French President Jacques Chirac is enjoying unprecedented popularity. His approval rating is higher than that of any other post-World War II president, including Charles de Gaulle. At the European Summit in Brussels, the day after the first strike in Iraq, Chirac said he would reject any U.N. resolution that would justify military action in Iraq.

“France will not accept any resolution that tries to legitimize the military intervention or gives the belligerent Americans and British the administrative power of Iraq,” he said.

It is a popular view in France that the United States is not abiding by the rules of international law. Demonstrators here shout: “U.S.A. is everywhere! Justice is nowhere!” Many disagree with “Captain Bush,” who they say “does not respect democracy or even the United Nations.” They fear “American imperialism” will not stop with Iraq and will later spread to other Middle Eastern countries, setting the region aflame.

“This war is a gift for the terrorists,” L’Hullier said. “They just are looking for a reason (to fight).” In a similar vein, Le Point magazine concluded in a recent article, “The war in Iraq is, after the traumatism of Sept. 11, an expression of a strategic willpower of the United States to elaborate on their imperial conquest.”

Another popular view is that oil is the driving force behind the war. Le Figaro reported in the days following the start of the war that 49 percent of the French population “believe the war in Iraq’s sole purpose is to take control of the oil in Iraq.”

Jean-Michel Dubernard, the Deputy Union Majorité Presidentielle of Lyon, shares this view: “I don’t understand … the military action. I do see, however, the issue of oil which will preserve American autonomy for decades,” he said.

Although a quiet minority, there are some in France who support the war and oppose Chirac’s position. Gilles Oubuih, a fourth-year accounting and auditing student at the Université Jean Moulin Lyon III, said he would support sending French troops to help fight Saddam Hussein.

“France is an ally of the U.S. If your ally goes to war, you must go with him. France is scared because it’s losing its power and influence,” he said. “Its relation with the U.S. is just like a couple – together it’s hell, but at the same time, you can’t live separated.”

On March 22, the third day of war, 120,000 people mobilized throughout France, protesting the war in Iraq with cries of “U.S.A. assassin!” and “Boycottez Américains!” or “Halte à la Busherie!”

Demonstrators gathered in front of McDonald’s restaurants, in some cases smashing windows. Throughout French cities and suburbs protesters called to boycott American brands, including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Nike.

The war in Iraq has not just divided the United States from France, but also France from Europe. “It is not an ordinary crisis. The Euro-American split is deep. Also, the intra-European split,” said Pierre Lellouche, Deputy Union Majorité Presidentielle and former co-director of the Institut français des relations internationales.

L’Huillier insists that “the French are not against Americans, they are against the Bush administration.”

“Bush Ö is not the voice of the people or a defender of democracy,” he said. “The war is not justified by the U.N. and it seems to be for economic reasons … If it was for humanitarian reasons, I could understand, but Iraq is not in a state of emergency. Saddam Hussein is not killing his people, George Bush is killing his people.”

Le Point magazine echoes this view. “From September 11, 2001 George W. Bush chose war. It was the precise instant when George Bush stopped being the president of a country in peace and became Chef de la guerre,” an article said.

As the war continues, many in France are now looking to the reconstruction of Iraq. France has already delegated 10 million euros to humanitarian relief efforts in Iraq and is supplying food for Iraqi refugees. Last week, they sent 32,000 tons of food to Iraq’s neighbors, enough to feed the entire Iraqi population for one month.

Some here say that Iraq’s eventual reconstruction could be an occasion for reconciliation between France and the United States or the occasion to start a new battle. Whatever the case, Chirac now looks to the United Nations to play a key role in the future, as the “only legitimate framework for installing peace in Iraq.”

In a recent television interview Chirac expounded on French opposition.

“The French understand that they can be for peace without being pacifist and against the war without being anti-American,” he said. Chirac maintains that he doesn’t foresee “any break in the friendship between France and the United States.”

Bridget Brown is a University student studying in France. Please send comments to [email protected]