French antiwar rationale is multifaceted

IBy Emanuele Saccarelli In the past few weeks, domestic and international opposition to the war has developed in a vigorous and visible way. We should welcome this as a salutary development. The task now is to ground this movement in credible and sound political foundations. While the sheer heterogeneity of the protests can be appreciated and valued at some level, not all antiwar positions are equal or – for that matter – compatible.

One of the issues that should be addressed most seriously, as we find ourselves nearing a new Security Council vote on the war, is the role of those governments that have formally opposed the President George W. Bush administration’s war drive. In particular, France has emerged in certain circles as the best institutional hope of the antiwar movement. Antiwar protesters attempted to embrace and shower with flowers the French foreign minister after his speech before the Security Council. Several petitions initiated by various antiwar organizations encourage us to praise the French government for its principled stand against the war. The hysterical denunciation of all things French by some U.S. congressmen, pundits and organizations provides a good measure of this phenomenon from the opposite side of the political fence.

While base attacks against French people and French culture in general should be denounced, the role of the Jacques Chirac and the French government must be carefully and critically scrutinized.

On Feb. 15, antiwar demonstrations vigorously sprouted in all corners of the world. In France, demonstrations took place in more than 80 cities. On the little-known island of Reunion, some 6,000 people marched against the war in the main city of Saint-Denis. Reunion is a French territory in the Indian Ocean. The fact that France still retains possessions in geographically incongruous places is no mere oddity. It points to an important historical and political reality that the antiwar movement can only ignore at its own peril.

French governments have a long and bloody history of imperialism. The 1956 Franco-British invasion of Egypt, the protracted repression of Algerian nationalism and the war in Indochina are only three of the most brazen and brutal chapters of this history. Oppressive French colonial regimes existed throughout the globe well into the second half of the twentieth century. This is not a matter of ancient history.

But there have also been relatively more recent signs of an incipient resurgence of French imperialism. In 1995, French troops militarily intervened in the Comoro islands – a former colonial possession off the east coast of the African continent. The French effectively decided that the Comoran president had to go, and accordingly handed power over to his prime minister by military means. No transnational body authorized this intervention. The United Nations was not consulted, and the elaborate genuflections to international law to which we are now becoming accustomed were not even attempted. This was an act of force committed in the old imperialist style.

Chirac, who is now the prime minister, was at the time the president of France. Incidentally, Chirac also personally fought on the side of French colonialism in the war of liberation in Algeria.

We could mention similar stories about France’s nuclear tests and its continuing effective colonial control of numerous pacific islands. It might be easy to dismiss these episodes because of their small scale. But a more sizable, though similarly sordid affair involving France can be found in the news right now. France’s military presence in the Ivory Coast now numbers in the thousands. The troops are formally there to “protect French citizens,” but it is becoming increasingly clear that “Operation Unicorn” can indeed only be justified in fantastic terms. Leveraging on internal factional divisions, the French government intends to play a leading political role in the country. The mere presence of such forces in a former colony should be sufficient to raise serious questions about France’s intervention. But we can simply note that France’s investments in the region total about $3 billion. As a result of an IMF-imposed program of privatization, most of the public companies and utilities are now in the hands of French capital, as was the case during the colonial era.

The timing of these more recent events is not accidental. The dissolution of the Soviet Union has created political conditions in which the European countries, whose foreign policies and interests were effectively subsumed under and subordinate to those of the United States, can finally begin to re-emerge as potential rivals. The rise of the Euro as a monetary rival against the dollar, the tariff wars over bananas and other commodities, down to Rumsfeld’s contemptuous recent remark about “old Europe,” suggest the possible resurgence of long-buried conflicts. What had hitherto prevented French governments from such independent and openly defiant action was a specific strategic conjuncture, not a fundamental change in their attitude toward invasions, plunder and repression.

French economic interests in Iraq are massive, longstanding and absolutely crucial to their opposition to the war. Chirac himself is one of the few Western leaders to have a personal and long relationship with Saddam Hussein. They first met in 1975, when Chirac was prime minister for the first time. Out of that visit developed strong economic connections between France and the Iraqi regime. At the time, Hussein approved a deal committing a 23 percent share of Iraqi oil to French companies. For much of the 1990s, trade with Iraq, from oil to telecommunication equipment, was a tremendous source of profit for French capital.

This is readily recognized by American supporters of the war drive. The Washington Post reported with satisfaction how Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, at a recent Senate hearing recalled being told by European critics that the debate about an Iraq war was “really about oil.” “And I agreed with them,” quipped Mr. Biden. “It is about oil – French oil and Russian oil.” Amidst edifying and pietistic references to freedom and democracy, honest reminders such as this one occasionally surface in the political debates surrounding the war. They could and should be used to point to the Bush administration’s own real interests. But the antiwar movement should have no illusion about France either. French opposition is not to war, to massacre and plunder, but only to a subsequent division of the spoils according to terms strictly dictated by Washington.

This is not the France the antiwar movement should look to with hope and solidarity. There is another France. It is the France of the underground struggle against fascism, of the principled opposition to imperialism, of the massive and noble 1995 strikes and demonstration. In a word, only the French people can offer us that hope and solidarity. Many of them rightly refuse to trust Chirac and their government in these matters. So should we.

It should also be emphasized that many of the other governments that now posture their formal opposition to the U.S. war drive also have little standing in such matters. Germany was partly responsible for the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia. Russia is presently involved in a bloody repressive war against the Chechen people that has been criticized by many human rights organizations. The Chinese regime is also a cruel dictatorship that is involved in the repression of a multitude of popular movements as well as the ethnic repression in the Xinjiang.

Chirac and many other heads of state find themselves in the “camp of peace” as a result of tactical maneuvers and considerations, not from the standpoint of a principled and credible opposition to imperialism. They might prove themselves willing to reverse their position, for the right price. The growing antiwar movement should be cognizant of these facts, and draw from them appropriate political lessons. The most important one, in my estimation, is that we cannot hope to seriously and effectively oppose the coming predatory invasion by supporting one imperialist government against another.

Emanuele Saccarelli is a political

science graduate student at the University. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]