Only George W. Bush can match Jean-Marie Le Pen when it comes to bringing protesters into the streets of Paris. The estimated 250,000 people who demonstrated in the French capital on February 15 were clearly a cross section of the whole population, united in a rare consensus against U.S. plans to make war against Iraq.
Several thousand “Americans against the Bush war” joined the good-natured march down the boulevards, basking in the winter sunshine and the warm applause that greeted the “good Americans” all along the the boulevards from the Latin Quarter to the Bastille. “French anti-Americanism” as decried in U.S. newspapers is largely an invention pro-war propagandists trying to discredit any source of criticism by attributing it to dark sentiments such as anti-semitism. “USA we love you — listen to us!” was the characteristic message on one of numerous home-made signs.
Anti-American no, anti-Bush yes! “War begins with Dubya”, “Bush-Sharon assassins”, “Bush, l’empire du pire”, “Stop la Busherie” (a play on the word “butchery” in French), “Cowboy go back to your ranch”… Very many demonstrators were calling for “justice for Palestine” and for an “alternative globalisation”.
A big banner showed photos of Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush side by side, the first labelled “Iraqi dictator”, the second “world dictator”. This may sum up the dominant sentiment behind the extraordinary worldwide protest on February 15: the perception the greatest threat to world peace today is the arsenal of weapons of mass destruction brandished by a leader who may not be a dictator at home but whose ambition to impose a “New Order” on the world unconsciously echoes Adolf Hitler.
While Jay Leno recycles ancient racist stereotypes of the “cowardly” French, in Europe it is obvious that today it takes far more courage to resist U.S. dictates than to go along with them — especially in France, certain to serve as whipping boy of culturally challenged Americans.
It is hard to escape noticing that people do not oppose war because they are bullied by Saddam, but rather because they don’t want to be bullied by the United States into supporting a war against a battered, disarmed, sanctioned and regularly bombed Arab country, a war the U.S. is sure to win… and then what? The happy end envisaged by the Wolfowitz-Cheney-Perle crowd is perceived elsewhere as delirium.
The French reaction has been very unruffled to the openly contemptuous attitude of the Bush administration, notably the famous distinction between “old Europe” and “new Europe” made by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Europeans can be simply amused by being called “old”, considering “old” goes with “wise”.
However, the joke turned serious a week after Rumsfeld’s snide remark, when the “new” Europe stood up to be counted in the form of a statement in the Wall Street Journal signed by the leaders of eight countries: Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Denmark. Citing “shared values”, the eight proclaimed their fidelity to Washington on grounds of gratitude — a sort of new feudalism in international relations.
This open split within Europe put a sudden end to the longstanding illusion that the European Union was gradually developing a “common foreign policy”. The hawks in Washington could chortle at having “isolated” Paris and Berlin. But the main point was that this gambit brought out into the open a heretofore unmentionable reality: that the United States is using the eastward expansion of both NATO and the European Union to cripple western Europe politically.
The intrusive U.S. insistence that the European Union should include Turkey goes in the same direction: a “Union” so divided in basic political outlook will never be able to offer coherent resistance to U.S. policy dictates.
For reasons of tact and diplomatic courtesy to the United States, this has been a nearly tabou subject in European political discussion. The tabou has been brutally broken by Rumsfeld and the manoeuvre of the eight “new” Europeans. The U.S. effort to divide and dominate Europe is now open and obvious, and there is no more point in being discreet about it. Tony Blair’s self-proclaimed role as “mediator” turns out to be that of helping the United States divide and rule the continent.
The long term repercussions of this open sabotage of European unity in favor of the American empire are unforeseeable. The first open act of resistance followed rapidly when Germany, France and Belgium balked at playing along with the U.S. ploy of calling for NATO measures to “defend Turkey from the threat of attack from Iraq” — a blatant pretext to involve NATO officially in the war preparations. Accustomed to having its vassals credulously bow to every pretext it offers in pursuit of its aims, the bully was furious. The Bushites stormed that the laggards were completely “isolated”.
The millions who marched in London, Rome and Madrid on February 15 made it clear that the leaders isolated from their own people were the ones who had proclaimed their allegiance to Emperor Bush II. Even before anti-war sentiment got a fresh boost from the UN Security Council meeting and the demonstrations, opinion polls all across Europe were showing overwhelming majorities — from 70% to 90% — opposed to war without, or even with, a U.N. Security Council mandate. Some of the strongest opposition was in Rumsfeld’s “new Europe” — Britain (90%), Spain (91%), Poland (72%), Hungary (82%).
The most politically significant message of the Paris demonstration, expressed on many signs and banners, was the demand that France use its Security Council veto to block a new resolution authorizing military force against Iraq. Rather by accident, France has found itself speaking for an enormous groundswell of world public opinion. Originally, president Jacques Chirac may (as his outraged critics in U.S. punditry allege) have intended merely to strut and fret his hour upon the stage, before following the U.S. into the war as Mitterrand did in the first Gulf War: “to preserve France’s place at the peace settlement”. That is clearly what the U.S. administration expected. That is what very many French people and European observers also expected of a Chirac who is considered jovial but vacillating and opportunist.
French diplomacy made an important contribution to drafting U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 adopted last November 8, calling for fresh U.N. inspections to make sure Iraq is rid of all weapons of mass destruction. The resolution was ambiguous enough to be seen merely as a method to justify war, as there were countless possibilities to declare non-compliance and no clear definition of compliance.
Perhaps, if the Iraqis had been less cooperative, the United States less arrogant, and public opinion more indifferent, France would have accepted a U.S. declaration of non-compliance and gone along with war, even reluctantly. That is what the United States expected. Instead, France has insisted that disarming Iraq is the real goal — taking Resolution 1441 literally. The Bush administration, whose real goal all along was regime change, not mere disarmament, feels betrayed.
However, France, like the hero who discovers his unexpected valor in the heat of crisis, has been taking its role more and more seriously. The brutal contempt of the Bush team has had an impact. The unusual burst of applause greeting French foreign minister Dominique Villepin’s brilliant Valentine Day speech to the Security Council was a strong signal. Surprisingly, France now actually finds itself in a position of moral leadership — a position that has been stunningly vacant for many years.
The latest French public opinion poll shows 71% calling on their government to use its veto in the U.N. Security Council to block any pro-war resolution. French political leaders are aware that France’s Security Council veto, like its nuclear force de frappe, can be “a good deterrent so long as we don’t use it”.
The French example may already have encouraged more timid Security Council members to vote against a war resolution, so that no veto would be necessary. Concluding a television round table that included Richard Perle, former prime minister Raymond Barre advised his countrymen not to be overly impressed by the furious boycotts of French products that will follow France’s refusal to go along with the U.S. adventure. After conquering Iraq, the United States will find itself in such a mess that it will need all the friends it can get. And by trying to warn the United States of the historic mistake it is making, France is as good a friend as one can find in international relations.