Sorry, wrong target!

Patrice de Beer
13 February 2003

‘The US administration doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to admit, that the French President speaks for 80 per cent of Europeans who are expressing their opposition to a military action they consider hasty.’

These words are not those of a French American-basher, or a ‘cheese-eating surrender monkey’ (to quote Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online). They come from one of the most respected American experts in European affairs, a Republican, Simon Serfaty, Director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, in an interview with the French daily, Le Monde.

His views certainly don’t represent those prevailing today among the US administration or media. But they probably explain why Jacques Chirac, confident in the support of his own public opinion and in tune with the general feeling in Europe, can afford to resist US pressure to toe the White House line.

A new phenomenon has been spreading throughout Europe in the last few months. It is shared among all its different countries and walks of life, and even political parties. Opinion polls show a massive opposition to the US-led war-to-be against Saddam Hussein.

According to a recent EOS Gallup Europe poll across 30 European countries, taken in late January, 82 per cent of ‘Old’ Europeans (that is from the present European Union (EU)) would oppose a war without United Nations (UN) backing, along with 75 per cent among ‘New’ Europeans, as US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld calls the future members of the EU.

This trend raises many questions. Since when has a huge majority of Europeans, whatever their reasons, been opposed to US policy? Since when have we seen such an opposition spreading well away from the usual suspects, the ‘anti-American’ French, or the leftist orphans of the cold war? Since when have we seen the British public more strongly mobilised against the American elder brother than the French? (There will probably be many more people demonstrating against the war on Saturday 15 February in Hyde Park than in the streets of Paris.)

Why? Polls, once again, show that the Europeans – nicknamed ‘Eurinals’, ‘Eunuchs’, ‘Euroweenies’, ‘a pain in the butt’ or worse by some Americans – don’t have any doubts about the evilness of the Saddam regime, or about the threat it represents. They seem, in their majority, supportive of a military intervention against Iraq, but only with UN Security Council blessing. Yet they share the view that the North Korean threat of using weapons of mass destruction is as great as Iraq’s, and that Europe should have a common foreign policy, which is far from being the case today.

The greatest difference of all with public opinion on the other side of the Atlantic lies in a deep rooted mistrust of US President George W. Bush: of his methods; of the rough way he handles his allies when they do not bend; of the misunderstanding, or the lack of interest in what those allies have to say; and of this cold war motto, ‘Either you are with us, or you are against us!’

They are not cowards or traitors this European majority; nor are they unable to understand what’s at stake, as British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon has hinted. They just don’t believe in the new US doctrine of pre-emptive war or its black and white quasi-fundamentalist vision of the outside world.

The situation is almost unheard of: the French public in tune with its neighbours. French intellectuals playing second or third fiddle instead of being, like yesterday, the standard bearers of anti-Americanism. A French president, as unpopular and reviled in the rest of Europe as he was in his own country only a year ago, re-legitimised, echoing the deeper feelings prevailing today across the continent.

Indeed, Jacques Chirac, a wily and unpredictable but shrewd politician, has seen his position strengthened not weakened by the violence of the US attacks – in particular those coming from the Pentagon. Much better than Tony Blair, he has caught the mood of the day, and has been surfing on it, feeding his own popularity by being in tune with the crowd. He doesn’t fear opposition from his own ranks; on the contrary, he is attracting support left, right and centre in France.

There have been hints that Chirac was thinking of shifting his position should war be unavoidable – going as far as sending his nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle for manoeuvres in the eastern Mediterranean. But Donald Rumsfeld’s bullying has pushed him into a corner from which it may be difficult to extricate himself.

Rather than helping France and also Germany – America’s most faithful ally until George W. Bush’s election – to turn around, convincing them to support Washington’s ‘coalition of the willing’, US tactics have had the opposite effect, of deepening the rift between the two sides of the Atlantic.

Only two weeks ago, it seemed obvious to most political analysts that, at the end of the day, Chirac would turn around and jump on the American war wagon; his only problem being how to justify such a sudden change to public opinion. Probably he was hoping that Colin Powell’s speech in the UN would provide him with the ‘smoking gun’ he needed for that purpose.

Had the US administration been more forthcoming with their evidence, had they published it months ago rather than in early February, had they tried to convince, Clinton-style, instead of coercing, things might have been different. They could have built a consensus around their strategy, mobilising their friends instead of antagonising them, and strengthening the pro-American camp which has always been very strong in the ‘Old’ continent.

Instead they were openly dismissive of existing Europe. They tried to break it, so as to remould it, to change it from a faithful and sincere ally into a subservient entity.

Finally, to focus specifically on France, to fire insults indiscriminately is a mistake. The target is wrong, obsolete. Jacques Chirac might think he is a new de Gaulle; it doesn’t really matter to anybody. The fact is that European public opinion has changed. The fact is that the major division in Europe does not now lie between the governments who agree to the US war and those that don’t – as George Bush and Tony Blair pretend. The split is between the governments, who are siding with Washington, and their own countrymen and women, sometimes their own party members. This is not the best way to start a crusade for democracy. This will leave scars.

But we should not let ourselves be carried away by politicians’ speeches, whoever they are. There is nothing definite, irreversible in politics. Rifts are never permanent, crises start, and end. And, when the war is over, we can be sure we’ll see American envoys crossing the Atlantic once again to ask those unruly Europeans to pay for the war and the reconstruction of Iraq; to send their peacekeepers to the Gulf. And the ungrateful Europeans will, as before, open their wallets and fly in their troops. For there is one job their soldiers know how to do better than the Americans, and that is nation building.

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