France has its 'certaine idee'


WASHINGTON - Speaking about France, the secretary of state sounded alternately mystified and hurt. "We know a good deal about what it is they want to do," he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "But we're not completely sure at every point why they are doing it."

The special assistant to the president was more direct, reeling off pointed observations. "The present foreign policy of France," he told the committee, "is disappointing in its manners, costly in its pride, wasteful in its lost opportunities, irrelevant in much of its dramatics - and," he added, "endurable in its fundamentals."

It fell to the former secretary of state, comfortably out of office and free to speak his mind, to say what everyone else in the hearing room seemed to be thinking. "In short," he declared, his clipped voice exquisitely precise in intonation, "the recent development of French foreign policy has not drawn a picture of France as a dependable or an effective ally."

As you might have guessed, these words were not spoken last week on Capitol Hill, and had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein or Jacques Chirac. They were, in fact, spoken in 1966 by (in turn) Secretary of State Dean Rusk, White House adviser McGeorge Bundy and former Secretary of State Dean Acheson.

The subject was France's decision to withdraw from the integrated military structure of NATO, and to move NATO headquarters from Paris to Brussels, Belgium. This was regarded as a calamity at the time; it was certainly disruptive. But Rusk was being disingenuous. Neither he nor anyone else was in doubt "why they are doing it." The French were doing it because, as then-President Charles de Gaulle famously wrote in the opening sentence of his wartime memoirs: "Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idee de la France." (All my life, I have had a certain idea about France.) And the calamity of 1966 soon passed.

Unlike the inhabitants of Germany, who agonize relentlessly about being German, or the British, who are not quite reconciled to the loss of empire, the French have "a certain idea" about their country that does not include excessive deference to other nation-states.

De Gaulle did not abandon the military structure of NATO because he had switched sides in the Cold War, or sought deliberately to insult his allies. He believed that it was France's destiny to stand apart, to cooperate with her democratic friends but not subordinate France to some multinational bureaucracy that was bound to be dominated by the United States.

Such attitudes, in Bundy's words, might have been "costly in their pride," but to Americans, at least, they should be comprehensible. While the French have "a certain idea" about their nation, and have surely perfected the art of living well, Americans regard themselves as historically unique, as chosen instruments of God's purpose, as citizens of the greatest country in the history of the world.

Needless to say, such sentiments are bound to cause heartburn in countries with similarly generous self-assessments. France and America rub each other the wrong way at times for the simplest of reasons: Despite their obvious differences, they are similarly - and sometimes excessively - infatuated with themselves.

Sure, it would be helpful if President Chirac were to defer to President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair and embrace the Anglo-American crusade against Iraq. But the French have been suspicious of the transatlantic "Anglo-Saxons" since the Napoleonic wars - or, at any rate, since John J. Pershing and Ferdinand Foch were squabbling over issues of prestige in World War I.

Marshal Foch, whose country lost 1.4 million souls defending the West against the Hun, and had been fighting and dying in the trenches for three years, thought the late-coming Yankees should defer to French leadership. But General Pershing begged to differ, demanding an independent American command.

Sound familiar?

To read the latest impassioned op-ed columns, or to listen to the overheated Pentagon consultant Richard Perle ("France is no longer the ally it once was. ... There are forces in France intent on reducing the American role in the world"), you would think that France had never stood by our side in the American Revolution, or in two world wars, had not fought and died on the ground in the Persian Gulf, was aloof from the war on terrorism, or had never put its soldiers in harm's way - as it did when it ended the Rwandan genocide, while Bill Clinton's America stood and watched.

It might be nice if the French would withdraw their objections to military action against Iraq. But the French have their reasons - some valid, some not - and are likely to affirm the United Nations resolution they helped to write. For France, in truth, is the ideal ally: standing by America's side when it counts, but not afraid to tell America what it thinks.

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