"How did we get here?" French political commentary

April 15, 2003 at 2:03 am
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Here’s the first article. It deals mainly with French politics, but it also address the entire range of the current situation, including our neo-conservative leadership, anti-Semitism, and other things.

Lest We Forget

BRUSSELS — "How did we get here?" asked a former French minister in a newspaper column recently. "Here" is a situation in which French Jews are being beaten up in the streets of Paris and in which President Jacques Chirac has to write to Queen Elizabeth II to apologize for the desecration of British tombs in France, and in which one-third of the French have been pulling for Saddam Hussein to win.

An even better question is who brought us here. The former environment minister, Corinne Lepage, lays the blame on the government and an obeisant media for "having wanted to stigmatize American policy in excessive fashion." But it’s time to name names.

* * *

Mr. Chirac brought us here, as did his foreign minister Dominique de Villepin. In Belgium the foreign and defense and prime ministers — Louis Michel, Andr√© Flahaut and Guy Verhofstadt — have brought their country to shame too. And that’s just the start.

Mr. de Villepin, the pin-up boy of diplomacy in "progressive" circles, was not just content to travel the world in an attempt to derail U.S. policy. Reportedly, he also has made instructive comments that make clear "how we got here." Mr. de Villepin, sources say, last week told members of the National Assembly that "hawks" in the U.S. administration are "in the hands of [Ariel] Sharon." According to the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaine, he went so far as to attack a "pro-Zionist" lobby made up of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, White House staffer Elliot Abrams, and former Pentagon adviser Richard Perle, all Jews.

But it’s not just a juif thing. Mr. de Villepin — who claims in his book "The Cry of the Gargoyle" to be a fan of both Machiavelli and Napoleon — never shies from messianic statements. He told legislators that the fight over Iraq was actually one against "Anglo-Saxon liberalism," an Assembly member told me.

But indignant reactions are now being heard. An editorial on Radio France Internationale noticed that the phrase "the Anglo-American forces," constantly used instead of "coalition forces," is borrowed straight from Vichy propaganda. In her own j’accuse for Le Figaro, Ms. Lepage said that to the errors of the media and the leaders, "one can add the pacifist demonstrations, which have nothing peaceful about them." She could "bear witness to the fact that these demonstrations are far from gatherings of real defenders of the rights of man or of peace. These are hordes orchestrated by the security services of Islamicist groups which…shout extremely violent slogans in which racial and anti-Semitic hatred is expressed without the least taboo."

Small wonder that the Interior Ministry itself says a mere spark could "turn anti-Americanism in the suburbs into uncontrolled violence." That observation comes too late for Noam Levy, a Jew beaten with an iron bar while at an anti-war demonstration. He said he was shocked by "the anti-Zionist slogans." (He should check with the Quai d’Orsay about the provenance of these feelings.) And it’s too late for the families of Britons who died defending France in World War I, and whose tombs near Calais were vandalized. Among the graffiti on a cenotaph: "Dig up your rubbish, it’s contaminating our soil."

"France," wrote Mr. Chirac to Queen Elizabeth II with all the pomp — not to mention pomposity — at his command, "knows what it owes to the sacrifice and courage of British soldiers who came to help her recover her liberty in the fight against barbarity…From the French people and from me personally, I offer you my deepest regrets." Too late. Mr. Chirac has himself refused to say which side he backs in the war. No wonder a third of the French tell pollsters that they want Saddam to win. Mr. Chirac is basking in 60% approval ratings, but he’s paid for them dearly. Demonstrators in the street shout "Long
live Chirac, stop the Jews!"
In Belgium, I’ve witnessed the defense and foreign ministers feed the beast of anti-Americanism, only to protest later that they want to defang it. At a debate last month at the University Libre de Bruxelles, I saw Messrs. Michel and Flahaut inflame a crowd with their comments. Belgians, said the former, are beginning to look on the U.S. as they once did the Soviet Union. "I am beginning to fear the U.S.," he added, his voice rising, to much applause from a 2,000-strong crowd. Not to be outdone, Mr. Flahaut promised to do all he could to kick Tony Blair out of the Socialist International.

By "debate," incidentally, I mean a representative of Republicans Abroad and me on one side, and on the other the two ministers, two pro-government university professors, a journalist who was supposed to act as moderator, and Iraq’s ambassador to Belgium. The Iraqi was twice interrupted by the crowd with applause; I was accused of being a CIA agent. When one student stood up to complain that a representative of Saddam’s regime was applauded while I was booed, the crowd shouted her down.

Can anyone wonder at the crowd’s response, given such leadership? Mr. Flahaut called for bigger anti-U.S. demonstrations that weekend. The government needed them, he said. His government was doing more than just standing by. Just as in places like Castro’s Cuba, parents at some Belgian schools received requests for their children to attend the demonstration. As for Mr. Michel, he personally quashed a revolt in his Mouvement Reformateur at a party meeting last month. One politician who was there told me the majority wanted the Belgian government to have a more nuanced policy and not to be in such opposition to the U.S. But Mr. Michel threatened, cajoled, and got his way. This is why there hasn’t been a backbench revolt in Belgium and France, though yesterday a Belgian politician tried to redress the balance by delivering letters of support to the British and U.S. embassies.

A senior Belgian official told me last week that Mr. Michel "now realizes he’s gone too far, that he’s made comments he ought not to have made, and is trying to calm things down." Too late. His government situated itself against the war and the U.S. out of a long tradition of subservience to the French and out of fear that otherwise its large Muslim population would riot. "The people then may react by voting for the far right," a Belgian official told me.

Explicable, perhaps. But how immoral to act in such a manner, and how dangerous.

The increasingly visible joy of liberated Iraqis is making clear the moral bankruptcy of those who purported to take the high ground by prolonging Saddam’s rule. The diplomatic blunders of Brussels and Paris are coming home to roost. This is how we got here.

Mr. Gonzalez is the deputy editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.

URL for this article: http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB104993340997739000,00.html

Updated April 10, 2003

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