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What France really wants

Sigmund Freud is reported to have once exclaimed in sheer exasperation, “What do women want?” The same question can be asked today about France. By Dan Goure.
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Sigmund Freud is reported to have once exclaimed in sheer exasperation, “What do women want?” The same question can be asked today about France.

On the one hand, France voted for U.N. Resolution 1441 in November, a resolution that explicitly acknowledges that Iraq had and still has weapons of mass destruction, that it is in material breach of 17 prior disarmament resolutions and giving it a final chance to come clean. On the other hand, the government of President Jacques Chirac not only opposes any effort to declare Iraq delinquent according to 1441, it has organized the opposition to U.S. efforts to bring the current crisis to a definitive conclusion. Paris has lobbied the non-permanent members of the Security Council against the Anglo-American second resolution. It even has declared its willingness to veto that resolution if it achieved the nine votes necessary for passage. France also sought to block NATO assistance to one of its own members, Turkey, forcing the other members of that organization to neutralize France’s obstructionism by moving to an alternate venue. And on Thursday, the French rejected the new British effort at compromise, beating even Iraq to the punch.


It is entirely too easy to ascribe to the French actions motives such as great power envy, an excess of Gallic pride or revenge against an American administration that France feels has paid insufficient attention to French interests. Yes, it is true that Washington and Paris differ on a number of issues, some serious, such as global warming, missile defense, genetically modified agricultural products and the humor of Jerry Lewis. Nevertheless, they must know that their current stance at the United Nations threatens to unleash a political firestorm of global proportions. As former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger declared in a recent editorial in the Washington Post, “If the United States yields to the threat of a French veto, or if Iraq, encouraged by the actions of our allies, evades the shrinking non-military options still available, the result will be a catastrophe for the Atlantic alliance and for the international order.”


George W. Bush will not yield, and Jacques Chirac knows this. Therefore, he must be willing to endure a direct confrontation with the United States. Indeed, in his recent statements, Chirac seems almost to be relishing such a clash.

So it is fair to ask, even with some sense of exasperation, what does France want? The answer is straightforward. France wants influence and power. It wants influence over the international security order that is developing in the aftermath of the Cold War. France is no longer a great power; its influence will not come as a result of the size of its military or the robustness of its economy. It will come from imposing on the international system a system of procedures, rules and regulations that will constrain the ability of more powerful states, and particularly the United States, to act without France’s assent.

Hence, France’s attempt to manipulate the U.N. Security Council over the issue of war with Iraq. The goal is to change the council from a consultative body consisting of member states that retain their full sovereignty into a governing institution that alone has the power to decide issues of war and peace. But, of course, one in which France retains its veto.


France also wants power, particularly within the new Europe that is becoming more unified and integrated. It wants that power because with power comes the ability to shape the development of a united Europe in ways that protect and even extend France’s particular national and cultural interests. The vehicle for achieving this is the European Union (EU). With power also comes a leading role in Europe and the possibility, however remote, that France can ride a unified European colossus back to great power status.

France’s intentions were rendered transparent by President Chirac when, at a meeting of European nations, he responded to criticism of his nation’s stance in the Security Council with the statement that the critics should simply “shut up.” The smaller states of Europe need only look at the coalition Paris has forged with Berlin and Moscow on the issue of Iraq to worry about their future in a European Union dominated by this new triumvirate. It is clear from France’s stance at the United Nations, that if there is an imposing of agenda’s to be done, France is the one that is going to do it.

InsertArt(1821502)The European Union, so far, has delivered economic power and a measure of political power. Where it falls far short is in the realm of military muscle.

Since the early 1990s, France has been on a crusade to create something called a European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) for the EU. This would be a European policy and program, including military forces, designed to address a range of problems and threats below the threshold that NATO was intended to meet. Countries in the EU such as Britain, Italy and Spain want the ESDP to complement NATO. They are concerned that a European military simply lacks the wherewithal to operate effectively without critical U.S. military assistance. France has always stated in private, and on occasion even in public, that the ESDP and the European military force to support it should be the equal of NATO. Through the ESDP, Europe would speak in NATO councils with one voice, turning that organization from a coalition of 19 equal parties to a balance of power between just two. Of course, the loudest voice in the ESDP would be France’s. We have an example of the power of that voice in the recent NATO meetings over assistance to Turkey in the event of war in Iraq.


Behind the desire to shape and control the character of the new Europe is a French desire to cleanse that continent of the pernicious influences of American capitalism and culture. France’s opposition to American politics, entrepreneurial capitalism and bold exploitation of science and technology stems from a firm determination to maintain a social and economic order rooted in the past. As one expert on European politics recently noted, the cause of our conflict with France is not a result of what the United States has done that is wrong. Rather, it is a French reaction to what America has done right. Addressing the roots of France’s anti-Americanism, Writing in the current edition of

Foreign Affairs, Walter Russell Mead pointed out that: “These causes are not, as perennially optimistic Americans want to think, American shortcomings and failures. For that we must look to American success, American power and America’s consequent ability to thwart the ambitions of other states and impose its agenda on the rest of the world.”

What France wants — what is at the heart of its stance on Iraq — is what it has wanted since the days of de Gaulle: a Europe whole and free - of America. An Iraq with weapons of mass destruction may be a small price to pay when the prize is Europe.

(Dan Goure is a senior defense analyst at the Lexington Institute and NBC News analyst who served in the Pentagon during the first Gulf War.)