France, Chirac and Bush’s War

Against the Current, No. 105, July/August 2003

Sophie Beroud and Patrick Silberstein

THE FRENCH DEMONSTRATIONS against the war in Iraq had two peculiar aspects. In the first place, though they remained weaker than in other European countries (as Great Britain, Italy or Spain), they were the first mass movement since the Spring 2002 presidential election; second, they occurred in a very specific context, created by the stand of French diplomacy within the United Nations Security Council and President Jacques Chirac’s opposition to any military action under the UN banner.

Besides, these two characteristics are interdependent. A part of the relative weakness of the marches can be explained by the absence of a visible break between the “people of the Left” demonstrating in the streets and a Right-wing President.

The situation was not as in Spain, where the street demonstrations directly opposed the right-wing Prime Minister’s allegiance to the U.S. administration. And it was diametrically different from the British situation, where millions of antiwar marchers directly opposed a Labour Prime Minister whose politics they now rejected.

Because of Jacques Chirac’s role during the pre-war period — reinforced by the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, giving to the President sole leadership authority on Foreign Affairs — the link with the unstable political situation opened by the circumstances of the presidential election was very strong. [Chirac was reelected with an eighty percent majority, but only because most of the left voted for him against the far-right racist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. See the article by Patrick Le Trehondat and Patrick Silberstein on the French election and the left, ATC 99, July-August 2002 –ed.]

According to many observers, the large demonstrations (February 15, March 20 and 22) were run through the same “atmosphere” as the anti-fascist May 1, 2002 demonstration when Le Pen was present in the election runoff. This link with last year’s events was very visible as we have seen in the massive involvement of students and young people.

We have seen demonstrators marching with self-made banners saying “Chirac, this is the third runoff!,” “Your 82% are at last deserved” (Chirac had 82% of the votes in May 2002 after receiving only 19.8% in the April 21 first round).

The marches gathered also many immigrants and second generation immigrants, sometimes organized on political and sometimes on religious bases. There was a lot of confusion also: Antisemitic slogans as well as pro-Saddam slogans could be heard.

A Confused Situation

The antiwar movement never reached the ability to be an autonomous mass movement with its own dynamic. On the contrary, this situation expressed the dramatic need for a united and new Left force which would be able to overcome the political deadlock.

It seems obvious that Chirac’s political choice for a direct diplomatic conflict with U.S. imperialism took place in a very complicated situation for him.

Opposing this war was a tremendous opportunity to recover from his lack of legitimacy; nevertheless, this is not enough to explain the “gaullist” posture of a man who — before this moment — had never displayed any political vision on foreign affairs. [“Gaullist” refers to the combination of independent French nationalist and conservative policies associated with the former General and President Charles de Gaulle–ed.]

Some other factors must be taken into account. The President has surprised his own supporters: It is obvious that in the past months we witnessed a change of direction. On the 31st of December, when he addressed the French people and representatives from the unions, business associations and republican institutions, Chirac announced that France should be prepared to participate, albeit with reluctance, in a war under the NATO banner.

The same message was delivered to the Armed Forces. But by the end of January, the tone had pointedly changed. During the ceremony for the 40th anniversary of the Franco-German Treaty, the Paris-Berlin axis was strongly celebrated.

Chirac and German Chancellor Schroeder emphasized this axis as the “European motor” and began to speak about multilateralism and the UN’s central role. It would be Paris and Berlin against Washington’s war hardliners, backed by their Trojan horse in Europe: Britain and some of the former Soviet Union’s satellites.

It seems that for France’s strategic diplomatic stand in that new stage of the world crises, the European question was central. It was an opportunity to make one more path towards the difficult building up of the European Union as a political force able to resist U.S. interests.

Chirac’s position, wielding a possible veto in the UN Security Council against any resolution allowing any war against Iraq, has surprised his own political friends. The gaullist precedents in foreign affairs were on everyone’s mind; in his time de Gaulle was hostile to any lining up for France with U.S. policy. He claimed for French independence in any subject (nuclear weapons, NATO, the Vietnam war, etc.).

But de Gaulle also opposed the idea of a united political Europe. This is one of the main differences between the traditional “gaullist attitude” and today’s French policy.

Chirac The One?

Despite many problems, some European leaders want Europe to be a united political force (as well as economic and military), and in this world context, opposing the war against Iraq had been an uncommon opportunity to be grasped.

For Chirac, the Fifth Republic’s president, elected with the largest historic majority against a fascist candidate, the time has come to be The One. Obviously, this choice also reflects conflicting interests within the French bourgeoisie.

For some weeks, this “Gaullist” posture helped to silence the critics from the bourgeois ranks where a lot of politicians remain “Atlantist” (i.e. supportive of close U.S. links). By the end of February, however, some voices began to speak out claiming to soften the French position in the UN from veto to abstention in order to preserve the alliance with the United States.

Some of Chirac’s allies attacked him very strongly, arguing for instance that the “United Nations was totally destroyed” and on a complete failure of French diplomacy. The MEDEF (the “big business union” issued a press release (April 16th) to protest against the government’s foreign policy which may threaten French interests in the USA.

“It is incoherent and unfair to mix reproaches to the French diplomacy — which is related to relations between States — and disqualification of our products and services. We should say to those who are discontent with our diplomacy: send telegrams to our Embassy, but don’t boycott our perfumes, yogurts and aircrafts. This is senseless!” said this business union.

The MEDEF added that those who are in charge of diplomatic affairs should take care as well of the economic aspects of the firms’ interests. This message is quiet clear! It is obvious that the political line followed by Chirac and his Foreign Minister de Villepin is not the fruit of any anti-U.S. feeling on the part of the industrial and financial French bourgeoisie, committed to oppose U.S. interests.

Nor was Chirac’s line, as could be read in U.S. newspapers, a way to preserve the French investments in Iraq; in this case the calculation would have been silly because everyone knew that the Iraqi regime would be defeated, and in these circumstances France will have to pay for his political opposition to the U.S. war.

A few weeks after the war, when France voted for the UN Security Council resolution authorizing the U.S.-British occupation, some of Chirac’s friends called him “a De Gaulle of snow who melts when things heat up.” Nevertheless it must be clear that Chirac’s and Schroeder’s stand represents a political vision for the European Union future. Whether they will succeed is another story!

ATC 105, July-August 2003