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Sunday 16 February 2003

Liberty, equality, fraternity, enmity

The self-serving French have made war inevitable and managed to raise US dislike for them to an all-time high, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards 

SADDAM Hussein dancing a triumphalist jig; Nato in mortal danger; the United Nations possibly in meltdown; the EU hopelessly split; and a peaceful resolution of the Iraq crisis now almost impossible: you certainly have to hand it to the French. But to be fair, they're consistent: you can always rely on them to let you down. Shortly, they'll be letting down the Germans and the Belgians. 

French foreign policy is notoriously visionary, daring and self-serving and its diplomatic service is the most disliked and also the most admired in the world. As negotiators, the French are notorious for their complete ruthlessness and cunning. There is a famous story about the stalemate reached in the lengthy negotiations between the French and the British about whether their jointly-developed aeroplane should be called 'Corcorde' (French) or 'Concord' (English). Suddenly, the chief French negotiator burst into tears, causing his deeply embarrassed English opposite number to say, "Oh, my dear chap, let it be Concorde". If this really happened, you can bet that the tears were a cynical ploy and that the negotiators laughed at the gullible British all the way home. 

When it comes to their relationships with other countries, the French are bastards and proud of it. Over centuries they have been the consistent and skilled practitioners of what the distinguished international relations expert, Martin Wight, describes as Machiavellian diplomacy. Wight divided diplomacy into three types: Grotian (after the seventeenth-century theologian Hugo Grotius) is directed at finding common ground with the other side. Machiavellian (after the sixteenth-century pragmatist) is instinctively hostile and relies on coercion, bribery and lies. Kantian (after the eighteenth-century philosopher) assumes with suicidal optimism that mankind is fundamentally benevolent and will respond to unilateralist gestures of goodwill. Traditionally the British are Grotian, the French (like the old Soviet Union) Machiavellian and anti-war campaigners like our present peace activists are Kantian. 

(Throughout the peace process, the Provos have been Machiavellian and the Irish and New Labour governments Kantian towards republicans, Grotian towards nationalists and more often than not Machiavellian towards unionists. This is understandable in the case of the tribal Irish; in the case of the British it demonstrates their rulers' tendency to be more perfidious towards their own people (see Gibraltar) than towards their enemies.) 

The US is in an uproar over France: emails are flying around in their millions asking incredulously how the French could have forgotten that Americans died to save them in two world wars. Yet there is no surprise in Britain, where it is well-known that gratitude is not an emotion the French understand; in the Foreign Office, it is equally well-known that the only interest the French have in anywhere is how much money or prestige can be gained from it. 

France snuggled up to Saddam before any other Western power and became his biggest supplier of arms, including the nuclear technology no other country would supply. The French were indulgent about the invasion of Kuwait, have undermined all UN attempts through sanctions or inspections to bring about disarmament and are creating mayhem at present in order to preserve their substantial share of the oil-for-food trade. They've emboldened Russia to play a similar game and the German Chancellor to the consternation of his diplomatic service to follow suit in the hope of winning back some electoral popularity. Now, they've thrown a moral fig-leaf to all those UN countries who were desperate to avoid doing anything brave. 

Faced with a united voice from the EU, Nato and the UN Security Council, Saddam would have caved in and almost certainly avoided war. That anti-war strategy of the UK and the US is now gravely damaged. Helped by the Kantian peaceniks, the Machivellian French have made war almost inevitable. In the end, of course, as with Afghanistan, France will secure the best possible deal for herself in exchange for coming down on the side of the US at the last possible minute.

Still, bastards don't always play it right. The German establishment blames Chirac for seducing Schroeder down a suicidal path and so at diplomatic level in the EU the Franco-German alliance is damaged. The new countries coming into the EU and Nato see Americans as benefactors and the French as spoilers. If Nato with which France has had a form of external association for years survives, France will not easily be forgiven for alienating the great power on which the institution has for so long depended. And the sense of betrayal in the United States is so great now that Bush will be encouraged to find ways of punishing France in the long run. But the main victims of France's latest exercise in selfishness will be the Iraqis who will die in a war made necessary because the French threw a life-line to a drowning Saddam Hussein.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards