When French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin issued his eloquent challenge to the United States at the United Nations Security Council last month, I happened to find myself in a cramped Manhattan laundromat near my YMCA, spiritually about as far from the noisy engine of modern media as the North Pole.
I wasn't expecting to watch the great UN debate from such a remote venue, but there was no escaping the big story of St. Valentine's day -- hanging from the wall, a black and white television was turned to live coverage of the deputized protagonists of the U.S.-Iraqi crisis. And, as might have been expected, Colin Powell's sonorous voice was commanding the attention of the knot of people gathered in front of the screen.
Veracity aside, it was clear that the Secretary of State's indictment against Iraq was having its anticipated propaganda impact, if not on the assembled delegates, then on the American public watching him on TV. I don't share the confidence in Mr. Powell's integrity expressed by so many poll respondents, and despaired to see him look so convincing in the service of war.
Now came Mr. de Villepin, as light and poetic in demeanor as Mr. Powell was stolid and prosaic. Suddenly, I noticed I was all alone in front of the TV. I shouldn't have been surprised. In reality, France doesn't matter much to the average American; it exists more as a caricature -- a symbol of fashion, style and cultural snobbery -- than as a real country with real people.
But I was glad I stayed, for Mr. de Villepin was soon astonishing me with high-toned phrases about great principles: "In this temple of the United Nations, we are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience." What's more, this "immense honor must lead us to give priority to disarmament in peace." Not Churchill, not even de Gaulle, but inspiring enough in an atmosphere polluted by the Orwellian White House propaganda campaign (as in, war will bring peace in the Middle East) of the past five months.
As a dual U.S. and French citizen, I've been following the argument between Old Europe and the New World with special interest, but I've also tried to maintain an American journalist's distance from the fray. Nevertheless, as the applause for Mr. de Villepin faded in the council chamber, I felt a wholly unexpected emotion: For the first time in my life, I was flooded with pride in my French political roots.
Thanks to my French mother, I've always had a strong appreciation of French culture. But my father, an American ambulance driver attached to the French army after D-Day, drummed it into me from an early age that political hypocrisy also made up a large part of my French heritage. Seconded by my mother, who lived under the German occupation, my father raised me on stories of French cowardice during the war. Instead of imbibing tales about mythic heroism of the Resistance, I was taught that La Résistance was mostly a myth, an appalling exaggeration that only added to the stain of collaboration.
Even worse, I knew that my grandfather, like most of his countrymen, had contributed nothing to the real Resistance. A sentimental businessman with no strong political views, his wood-veneer factory ran at full tilt during the occupation and, according to my aunt, he profited handsomely from the war economy. The official story was that grand-père had to keep the factory open to protect his employees; shutting it would have invited the Germans to seize it. Not very believable, but, ironically, I'm grateful that some of the revenue went to paying my private-school tuition.
Ironically, because my good education led me to Columbia University, where I fell in with the great historian of Vichy France, Robert Paxton, who once again confronted me with perfidious France. From Prof. Paxton, I learned the full extent of French collaboration with Hitler -- the shocking pleas for closer co-operation by prime minister Pierre Laval that were often rebuffed by the Nazis. (Mr. Powell, take note: The Germans didn't fully trust even a willing French ally.)
Thus, during the weeks that followed Mr. de Villepin's speech, I suspected farce within his poetic meter. Much as I could see the lies and half-truths of George W. Bush and Mr. Powell -- the aluminum tubes falsely attributed to an Iraqi nuclear weapons program; the British intelligence report on Iraqi espionage plagiarized from a California graduate student; the "war against terrorism" that spares Saudi Arabia and Pakistan -- I mistrusted Mr. de Villepin's charm and goodwill.
Yet the anti-French invective from American punditry made we want to believe in Mr. de Villepin again. When Thomas Friedman suggested replacing France on the Security Council with India, and Charles Krauthammer recommended punishment for the French after an invasion of Iraq, I wanted to cheer for the sons of the Enlightenment.
For the most part, I dismissed the war hawks' rage against the French as claptrap from journalists who had sold out to power. But nagging questions remained; wasn't there perhaps a shard of truth in their critique?
Wasn't it possible that Mr. de Villepin's temple contained not only the world's conscience but also Elf Total's oil interests in Iraq? Wasn't President Jacques Chirac seeking psychic compensation for the decline of French power -- the humiliation at the hands of Eisenhower over Suez, the loss of colonies everywhere? On humanitarian matters, was France really a better arbiter of morality than Uncle Sam? After all, the Vietnam War began in a French colony, and U.S. collaboration with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s was preceded by Franco-Iraqi collaboration on nuclear power.
As a U.S. member of the "anti-American" peace camp, I very much hope that Mr. de Villepin's authentically noble phrases are supported by an authentic commitment to peace. But I remain unconvinced of French sincerity. Already, I hear whispers at the UN that France is prepared to abstain on the U.S.-British resolution -- a kind of face-saving realpolitik that avoids real responsibility.
If Mr. Chirac wants to disinter the moral authority of France, then he must not shrink from using his veto power at the UN. If he really wants to shed the tar baby of national cynicism ascribed to France by its U.S. critics, he should reject a shortsighted collaboration -- even a passive one -- with the imperial ambitions of Mr. Bush's new Rome.
What a terrible irony if the cynicism imputed to France by the war lobby wound up betraying the cause of peace.
John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper's Magazine.
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