When it comes to foreign policy, opinion polls as well as a sampling of Hollywood blockbusters show that Americans see themselves as the good sheriff, selflessly sorting out a strange and unpredictable world. But as they chew over the congressional report on 9/11, they are clearly struggling to come to terms with the reality of their latest foreign adventure.
In contrast, the French foreign ministry is unambiguous about its role: France is the birthplace of human rights and the cradle of the Enlightenment. Thanks to giants such as Voltaire, France inspired others – for example, in the United States – to liberate themselves from oppressive, corrupt aristocratic elites.
So much for self-image: in practice, the French are running the cash registers in a Wild West whorehouse. Not only do the French, like Edith Piaf, regret nothing: their determination to keep their arms exports booming pushes them to sidestep their own laws, not to mention the international conventions they have signed. While all countries tend to pursue a foreign policy based on self-interest, the French have a network of arms salesmen and military advisers working in concert within their perceived spheres of influence to supply mass murderers.
In an age when world leaders apologise for slavery or the Irish potato famine, and pledge adherence to an ethical foreign policy, the French prefer to overlook the parallels between their conduct in Algeria and the Americans’ antics at Abu Ghraib prison. There are few revisionist voices questioning France’s ability to embrace such paragons as Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein in any given conflict. One searches for a French politician of the stature of Robin Cook hurling intellectual grenades at their own government’s moral inconsistencies.
The Elysee Palace’s routine disregard of its clients’ human rights records makes President Jacques Chirac’s new status as hero of the left and guardian of Europe’s conscience on Iraq all the more ironic. This is the same Jacques Chirac who, as French premier in the 1970s, sold Saddam Hussein two nuclear power plants (“This deal with France is the very first concrete step towards production of the Arab atomic bomb,” gushed Saddam). Chirac later declared himself “truly fascinated by Saddam Hussein since 1974”. France went on to sell the Ba’athist regime $1.5bn of weapons.
In the 1990s, the French oil giant TotalFinaElf spent six years developing the Majnoon and Bin Umar oilfields, representing 25 per cent of Iraq’s oil reserves. Alcatel won contracts worth $75m, its main task being to upgrade Baghdad’s phone system; Renault sold Iraq $75m worth of farming equipment; and, once the trade embargo was partially lifted, France controlled 25 per cent of Iraq’s imports. It is estimated that, in 2001 alone, 60 French firms did $1.5bn in trade under the now-suspect oil-for-food programme. In December 2003, when the US announced it was barring opponents of the Iraq war from bidding for US-financed projects worth $18bn, France professed astonishment. The then French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said Iraq’s sovereignty should be resolved before reconstruction could begin.
France was more enthusiastic about invading Afghanistan, and it has duly reaped the economic rewards. According to de Villepin, France has made Afghanistan a priority for financial assistance. It pays its 18 per cent share of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office budget, which in turn funds reconstruction. However, unlike the Germans, who are giving an additional $390m (£214m) over the next four years, the French have so far sent only an extra 33.7m (£22.4m) and are being bad-mouthed for not stumping up more in the present deteriorating security situation.
France has total armed forces of 450,000, of whom 5,000 are stationed in African states with which France has a “defence agreement”. However, only 550 could be found for Afghanistan, where the Taliban are now resurgent in the south and east, and warlords in the north make the prospect of free and fair elections unlikely.
To be fair, the French are paying for the philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy to go to Afghanistan to “evaluate their needs and expectations”. Meanwhile, Alcatel is installing the mobile-phone network for Kabul and five other cities.
In the Balkans, France still enjoys a cosy relationship with Serbia, despite the death of Francois Mitterrand and allegations about his son’s business dealings. “Everyone has seen Radovan Karadzic chauffeured around the suburbs of Sarajevo,” says Bernard McMahon, an aid worker in Bosnia. “It happens all the time. Karadzic gets out of the car and greets his people like he’s a hero. The French peacekeepers must know he’s there, because he couldn’t be more obvious.”
McMahon is a retired British army officer who has been in Bosnia since that war began. He says local Muslims feel betrayed, as war criminals move about freely while French soldiers look the other way. “People believe the French tip off the Serbs every time there’s an operation.”
Sympathetic observers point to France’s large aid budget. At 0.41 per cent of GNP, it is slightly larger than Britain’s 0.34, but much more than America’s 0.14. A high proportion of this sum goes to Africa and pays for the global network of 1,000 Alliance Francaise centres, a brave attempt to hold back the global spread of US political hegemony, bubblegum culture, and the English language. But Richard Youngs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace questions France’s commitment to propagating democracy, suggesting that its aid is focused on projects which spread French culture, rather than schemes that foster human rights and transparency in government, or fight corruption.
Linda Melvern, author of two studies on the Rwandan genocide, believes that French policy then, as now, is “almost beyond belief. The more one looks into their actions, the worse it gets. The French Senate inquiry into Rwanda was a whitewash . . .”
Her third book about Rwanda will concentrate on the role of France. She has a leaked memo confirming that the French supplied members of the interim government responsible for the massacres with satellite phones to direct operations across the country. “They hand-delivered them by courier,” she says. “In the run-up to the massacres, the French had 47 senior officers living with and training the genocidaires. French policy is about influence and money and Francophonie,” says Melvern. “They are very professional at manipulating the UN system. By controlling Boutros Boutros-Ghali, their candidate for UN secretary general, they determined what information about the Rwandan genocide reached the outside world.”
Perhaps it is unfair to suggest that business interests might be tipping the balance against France’s taking a stand on human rights in Sudan. Jemera Rone of Human Rights Watch explains that TotalFinaElf has oil concessions in southern Sudan that it cannot touch until the peace deal between Khartoum and the south sticks. The French are wary of giving the regime in Khartoum a hard time about its ongoing ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in Darfur, in case it walks away from the southern peace deal, thus imperilling Total’s prospects.
Burma is not part of the Elysee Palace’s francophone project, but it is of great concern to TotalFinaElf, which has been involved in developing the Yadana gas pipeline project for nine years. The company boasts of “morally irreproachable behaviour on the part of our teams”, but it seems its stirring declaration applies only to the salaried employees with written contracts. The Nobel prizewinning democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi says simply: “Total has become the strongest supporter of the Burmese military system.”
Lord Alton of Liverpool, a regular visitor to Burma, believes there is a concerted attempt to end sanctions, cleverly orchestrated and probably bankrolled by supporters of the regime. “The leaders of the National League for Democracy and Burma’s ethnic minorities are quite clear: no embargo should be lifted until significant moves have been made towards democracy. Rewarding a regime that has committed genocide against the Karen, imprisoned political dissidents and coerced vast numbers into forced labour would be a classic example of western economic interests triumphing over humanitarian and human rights concerns.”
Perhaps the nation that brought us the Enlightenment has the best of motives in lobbying enthusiastically – as it currently is – to end the EU sanctions on selling military equipment to China, imposed after the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests. French exports increased 32 per cent to 4.6bn (£3.1bn) last year, and Chirac’s backing for China is unwavering. He has warned Taipei not to provoke its giant neighbour; and he did so, undiplomatically, during a state visit to Paris by the Chinese president in January.
Maybe the French believe that human rights in China are improving. They would do well to consider the British manufacturer who supplies supermarkets with salads, and who sourced walnuts from China. He received customer complaints from people who had found human teeth in their food. Further investigation revealed that the walnuts were being cracked open by Chinese political prisoners using their teeth.
Andrew Wood from the Campaign Against Arms Trade says: “France is consistently in the top four arms suppliers and, in recent times, has been the lead supplier to developing nations as well as conflict zones like the Middle East and India/Pakistan.”
A director of one of Marconi’s military equipment businesses remarks that “the rest of us are amateurs. The French have a network of unaccountable government agencies and retired military officers helping arms manufacturers promote their goods. They link aid deals, credit guarantees and sweeteners, and they get the big sales. The British are getting better at this, but we’re not in the same league as the French.”
Amnesty International has criticised France for the lack of transparency of these agencies, and for their involvement in military services consultancies, particularly in Africa. “The French government still fails to ensure its export-licence and end-use monitoring systems prevent such transfer falling into the hands of those who have been responsible for human rights violations.”
A book by Andrew Swindells due to be published early next year reveals the cynicism with which French interests are pursued in “la France Afrique“. “Everything with France is about business, and nothing would make them blush. Officials shrug and say, ‘Many people have died: c’est la vie.'” He believes that the Elf (part of the ubiquitous TotalFinaElf) corruption trial of 2003 gave us all a lesson in how France does business abroad.
But perhaps the most damaging consequence of France’s policy is its vigorous defence of the annual 41.5bn (£27.5bn) of European Union agricultural subsidies, of which it takes 22 per cent, the largest share. Most NGOs believe little will improve in Africa while the EU, the United States and Japan dump cheap surpluses there. Farming accounts for 70 per cent of employment in Africa, and genuine fair trade is seen as one of the few ways to make globalisation work for the developing world. However, Oxfam claims, the French government is leading the anti-reformists, refusing to consider substantive reform until 2006.
Alongside the blatantly commercial focus of French foreign policy is France’s desperation to keep its place on the UN Security Council. The Elysee’s self-image is one of a wise and shrewd world power stiffening Europe’s nerve against bloated US imperial ambition. No doubt the French are sincere – but listen carefully, and you will hear the ring of a cash register.