Anxiety of influence

Fellows Spring 2003

By Sarah Wildman

June 05, 2009

Just before the troops entered Baghdad, I was standing at a bar in the third arrondissement, busy with an espresso and a croissant, when the guy next to me started talking to himself. "Chirac is crazy," he muttered, seemingly apropos of nothing. (Granted, he was drinking wine, and looked a little worse for the wear. This may be France, but it was nine in the morning.)

He wasn't the first to say it. In fact, on April 2, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin echoed the sentiment in a two-line headline in the liberal daily Libération: "RAFFARIN: 'THE AMERICANS ARE NOT OUR ENEMIES.'" Given our historic relationship with France, this might seem like a statement of the obvious. But then it came on the heels of a poll suggesting that 33 percent of the country was rooting against an American victory in Iraq. "Our camp is that of democracy," the quote continued, in an obvious jab at his nose-thumbing counterpart, Jacques Chirac.

It's not hard to see why Raffarin would suddenly be sparring with a fellow conservative like Chirac. In recent years, French leaders have finessed the country's anxiety over its ever-diminishing international stature by offering just enough resistance to American foreign policy to make their eventual support look determinative. And, during the build up to the current war, Chirac appeared to be taking a page from that same book. But, as Chirac's predecessors knew, the key to playing a weak hand is never giving your opponents the opportunity to see just how weak it is. Chirac violated that dictum by opposing the war till the end. And when that opposition proved utterly inconsequential, both the French and the world realized just how little influence their country actually has. So today the French find themselves confronting a relatively new phenomenon: gnawing self-doubt.

The second-guessing of Chirac's strategy began almost immediately after the war itself. The business community, for one--from global oil and telecommunications giants to mom-n-pop wine shops--wasn't thrilled that Chirac had forgotten its dependence on the rest of the world. Its fears were born out last week, when MEDEF, the Movement of French Enterprises, sized up its first post-boycott numbers and concluded that anti-French sentiment was going to have a long-term effect. "Certain French enterprises are suffering today from the differences that have arisen among states over the Iraqi question," a MEDEF official declared at a press conference Wednesday. A businessman who in good times generates 10 percent of his revenue from U.S. wine sales told AFP last Monday that "Our information indicates a very clear drop in the number of French wine bottles appearing on store shelves." One wine importer, a New York-based Frenchman, told The Washington Post that he'd lost $500,000 last month alone.

Beaujolais aside, the real anxiety spiral came over France's role, or lack thereof, in postwar Iraq. In 2001, under the auspices of the Oil for Food program, French companies lapped up more than $700 million in exports to Iraq. It was a French company, Vinci, that built the Iraqi sewer system. Renault sold some $75 million in farm vehicles. And TotalFinaElf sat hungrily awaiting the end of the sanctions regime, at which point Iraqi oil fields would open up. What a difference a year makes. These days companies like Alcatel, France's telecom giant, which set up the telecommunications network in Iraq during the same time period, brood about being shut out entirely from Iraqi reconstruction.

But, given that the French have always had strong commercial ties to Iraq, the complaints of big French business aren't so surprising. What is surprising is the talk on Parisian streets. Sure you still run into the odd group of men who stand around bitching about America--who make faces when they hear an American accent or who reflexively launch into the "this war was for petrol" loop. But you also hear a surprising number of people concerned that Chirac went too far.

A business dinner organized during the war by my husband's colleagues in Boulougne, St. Cloud, a banlieue chic of Paris, shed light on the new position. It's not, these people were quick to explain, that they were in favor of "Bush's war." Nor did they care much for the American president. But, just like Raffarin, who qualified his position as antiwar but pro-American, they worry that Chirac has forever marginalized the country. As one put it, "Who are our allies today? Iraq? China and Russia? China and Russia are not our natural allies, the United States is."

And these questions have clearly bubbled up to the country's political and intellectual elite. Over dinner a few nights later at a tiny restaurant in the fourth arrondissement, I couldn't help but notice that the party next to us was arguing. The issue, of course, was the war. But, contrary to what we might have expected, not simply how to be against the war. One diner was actually arguing that French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin should never have taken such an aggressive antiwar stance. Turned out the advocate of this position was chief of staff for a member of the French parliament. He was completely in favor of the American position--a rarity in Paris, especially for someone accompanied by a group of friends who are pretty adamant in their opposition to American foreign policy. But M. Chief-of-Staff was quick to say he knew other staffers who supported his position.

Certainly there are editors who do. Back in March, a scathing headline in the center-right Le Point asked if French leaders had gone "overboard," and concluded that yes, in fact they had. An article in the liberal weekly Marianne asked, rhetorically, "Visionary Policy or Operetta-Style Gaullism?" The magazine quoted French political scientists verbalizing the French worst nightmare: a descent into irrelevance caused by the country's choices over Iraq. Said one, "At the top level, our diplomacy asserts a will for independence. On a daily basis, everybody accepts French decline."

And then there's the average Parisian--the Algerian born bartender in the café downstairs from my apartment, for example--who's starting to hedge his bets. "If only [the Americans] had gone in with the United Nations," he says wistfully, handing over another coffee. "Then I could have supported them."