Is France a ‘Moral Alternative’ to US and UK Foreign Policy?

Article published on March 10, 2003
community published
Article published on March 10, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The Ancient Franco-British opposition never seems to end and continues entertaining us even on the newest issues such as post and neo-colonialism.

“Neo-colonialism” is a very fashionable term these days. It sits on the pages of most texts on contemporary International Relations and just rolls off the tongue of virtually anyone with a modicum of disapproval for any of the West’s policies towards the underdeveloped South. In fact, the word can, and is frequently used to, characterize any relations or exchange between the West and the “Third World”. Neo-colonialism, the new insidious imperialism, is synonymous with exploitation, deliberately engineered dependence, unequal rights, self-seeking interference in the affairs of (ostensibly) sovereign nations, and the unwarranted projection of force.

Indeed. It is just contemporary American foreign policy, aided and abetted by those fellow duplicitous Anglo-Saxons, the British, and a number of large multinational corporations. Of course, this is only a caricature but it is clearly close to one upon which delegates to last week’s Franco-African summit concurred. 50 African nations pledged their weight behind Jacques Chirac’s policy on Iraq, in defiance of the United States’ wishes for a second UN resolution authorising war, and a commitment “to the fight for mutual respect, law and morality”.

The last bastion against imperilasm

My intention in this article, however, is not to add my voice to the chorus of anti-American sentiment which has been generated over the questions of Iraq, Palestine and, more generally, issues of global justice and fair trade. Conversely, what strikes me most about these debates – and what I seek to illustrate in this article - is the way in which France has sought to align itself as the last bastion of protest against this new and perfidious form of imperialism. In a world of disharmony, Chirac has spotted a gap in the market. Chirac’s strategy over the past weeks, culminating in the Franco-African summit, has been an attempt to place France in a vantage point from which to mount a robust intellectual case against Americas over-bearing, unjust and uncultured hegemony. It would seem a particularly simple task considering the US’ current belligerent, coercive and unilateral approach to all matters from Kyoto, to the Middle-East, the UN Security Council and NATO. And it is made especially easy given the countries the US counts among its best friends – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Israel especially.

However, Chirac (and M. Villepin’s) policy is replete with paradox and contradiction which could come back to haunt him. Chirac may succeed in positioning himself at the vanguard of a coalition against the ‘style’ of American foreign policy but, as the key features of the Franco-African conference attest, he risks being betrayed as a hypocrite in the substance of his own foreign policy. Take, for instance, Chirac’s invited guests at the summit. Much has been made of one particular “grubby handshake” but it should also be noted that the Quai D’Orsay played host to 23 African dictators, among them Chirac exchanged cordial bises with Togo’s autocrat, Gnassingbye Eyadema, who has just altered the constitution in order to remain in power beyond his 38 years; Omar Bongo of Gabon whose ruthlessness has sustained him in power for three decades; and Sam Nujoba who, like Mugabe, also wishes to implement his policy of repossessing white-owned farms by force. And so to Robert Mugabe, President Unelect, who after receiving a curt handshake from Chirac, perhaps in recognition of the distaste his reception gave the Commonwealth and the European Union, announced that “France is uniting the world”.

The “rules” of the post-colonial age

On the contrary, Paris’ policy and, indeed intentions, are anything but about world unity. The ease with which Donald Rumsfeld’s comments about ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Europe sparked controversy about Chirac’s attitude to an enlarging Europe and his simultaneous attempt to present France as an alternative port-of-call for hitherto Anglophone nations demonstrate the division. Chirac apparently believes in the political integration of the EU but his conduct last week serves to demonstrate that he has forgotten “the rules” of the post-colonial age.

The completion of decolonisation for Britain and France relied on two essential voids being filled in their respective foreign policies. The first aspect -which actually underpins the whole debate on neocolonialism - was to hand over control for third world and global order to the only democratic superpower, the US. The second was to repatriate diplomacy and integration to the European theatre. The European market which was designed to lead to a political community would be the substitute for empire’s now rendered untenable by the costs of war and indigenous uprising.

Chirac’s behaviour this week in inviting Robert Mugabe casts aside any prospect for a rigorous European foreign policy based on our best values – democracy, rule of law, ethnic tolerance, solidarity. Instead Chirac has reinstated a retrograde foreign policy based on very old nationalist prejudices and a myopic notion of self-interest.

Following Zimbabwe’s shameful elections, Britain lobbied hard to place diplomatic and economic sanctions upon Mugabe and his cohorts and succeeded in both the EU Council and the Commonwealth. France’s cynical manipulation of the expiry date and negotiations for the resumption of new sanctions were a deliberate sneer at the British government, following on from Chirac’s fait accompli on CAP in the autumn of last year .

It is an age-old animosity and one which Mugabe has callously capitalised on. For the last few weeks, his state media has being broadcasting Chirac’s support for Mugabe’s land raids in contrast to the old colonial master. One handshake later and a 79th birthday spent in the Plaza Athénée on the day EU visa controls resumed, will the subjugated people of Africa need more evidence?

The old Franco-British contradiction

Chirac’s efforts to isolate the British and frustrate the Americans must, however, be viewed in more starker terms than conflict over policy and visions. The Anglo-saxon model is, understandably, unattractive to the French – it’s emphasis on cheap hiring and firing, minimum government support and lack of civic duty is fairly distasteful to a lot of us, too – but Chirac’s ‘civilised’ alternative is not much better either.

Just as the assault on Iraq is explained by oil and strategic placement of forces, France’s African conference was a means of gaining influence in areas where markets and cheap raw materials could boost France’s structurally sclerotic economy.

The cosseting of Mugabe is another step toward advancing French interests within and beyond Francophone Africa. Mugabe has stationed troops in several African countries for private financial gain where they are able to extract and control their precious natural resources, including the Democratic Republic of Congo. DRC contains the highest concentrations of copper, cobalt, diamonds, Tantalum and Tantalite in the world. The latter two are vital to modern industry – in equipping the communications age with mobile phones and PCs and in producing high-performance glass and steel. Chirac was notably attentive to the rulers of the DRC’s neighbours.

Following the British success (BAe Systems) in securing the controversial deal to equip Tanzania with a military/civilian air traffic control system, France has pursued an even more aggressive commercial policy in Africa. Amongst their successes, ATR are now to assist Zimbabwe’s beleaguered national air carrier. But why sustain a despotic state’s national flag carrier?

“Immoral, moi?”

Chirac speaks of a world in which “the days of impunity or when people were able to justify the use of force are over”, but looking at his audience and considering his own forays in corruption (as Mayor of Paris) and militarism (nuclear testing and mission creep in Cote d’Ivoire), he just looks like a man looking for friends in all the wrong places.

If France really sought to provide a moral alternative to US/UK domination and its self-serving and militaristic brand of neo-colonialism, it has missed some astonishing opportunities. He could have relinquished CAP to give markets to the agrarian people of Africa he says he cares so much about, and refused to sell their dictators arms. Above all last week was the perfect opportunity to round-up some of the most venal tyrants in the world and put them on trial à la Milosevic.

Instead, it was another childish swipe at the British and Americans (and Atlanticists as far East as Latvia!), masquerading as an ethical challenge to neo-colonialism. It was in fact another round in France versus the Anglo-Saxons and there’s nothing new in that.