Recently, French President François Hollande visited Saudi Arabia, and commentators noted that France was trying to take advantage of a cooling of relations between the United States and that country to, among other things, sell weapons to the not very democratic kingdom. France also is set to benefit from Lebanese arms purchases funded by Saudi Arabia. In the Geneva negotiations between Iran and six countries, the foreign minister of France, Laurent Fabius, proved the toughest negotiator and claimed that Iran would violate the agreement. During a visit to Israel, supposedly socialist Hollande was effusive in the expression of his friendship for far-rightist Benjamin Netanyahu – although the latter had publicly humiliated Hollande during a state visit to France in fall 2012. All the signs are there that French foreign policy not only follows in the footsteps of the one chosen by pro-Bush Nicolas Sarkozy – but has moved even farther to the right than US foreign policy.
Hollande calls himself a socialist, although he promotes typical neoliberal policies in economics and is more willing to cut social spending than to think twice before launching a war. He is said to have felt betrayed when President Obama, finally, decided not to use military force in Syria. France officially supported the Syrian opposition and is only now realizing that the situation in that country is more complex than a nasty regime fighting democrats who want a new Arab spring. Precisely at the point when Obama is moving toward a more sensible approach to Iran, and maybe the whole Middle East, France is stepping into the boots of the neocons. In foreign policy, Hollande is to the right of Jacques Chirac and much to the right of the latest incarnation of Obama.
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For Europeans – and notably southern Europeans – opposition to US foreign policy had been a staple since the Vietnam war. Huge majorities opposed the Iraq war. Now it seems that France wishes to be a kind of mini-Bush in the world. To all intents and purposes, France has become part of the informal alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia and is now taking sides in the brutal conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslim groups. These conflicts were exacerbated by the US war in Iraq, as is well-known in geopolitical circles. This change often is presented as a clever commercial move for the French, who hope to benefit from the flaps between the United States and its allies. Whatever benefits might accrue are bound to be peanuts for an economy that is not in great shape.
The United States, of course, is still the leader in illegal killings by drones and special-ops interventions all over the globe. It can be faulted for not pushing for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet Obama took a little positive step in negotiations with Iran and wisely decided not to bomb Syria. Congress does not like these timid gestures, which, however, make peace likelier. And now American neocons, the same people who in 2003 called the French “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” are full of praise for what they call Hollande’s determination or toughness. Hollande is anything but a tough guy; he gives up in most fights and is now jettisoning all social programs. As a “socialist,” he should be worried about where the praise comes from. McCain praising a “socialist” – where is the mistake? I prefer Paul Krugman’s critique of Hollande: He includes Hollande in the group of “spineless, muddleheaded politicians on the moderate left.”
Hollande claims to be close to Obama (although the feeling does not seem to be mutual), but his foreign policy decisions, most probably inspired by a set of advisers and cronies, make him a closet Republican. If he were a true friend of Israel, as he claims to be, he would tell the leaders of that country what Jewish Voice for Peace or Peter Beinart say about the regime, not to mention Jimmy Carter – who is no leftist. If he were a true friend of the Palestinians, he also would warn about the deleterious impact of the so-called Jewish settlements. If he were a true friend of peace, he would push for a settlement with Iran and not send French troops to Africa without active support from other Europeans (he did get a UN decision). French foreign policy may be stealing a page from Clinton’s book – for it seems to be dictated by economic considerations – yet the realignment now in progress takes France farther from the US under Obama.
In the past, France often was a leader in resisting the United States. De Gaulle criticized the war in Vietnam, and the public in France loved it. Chirac, who had some remnants of Gaullism in his opportunistic political makeup, opposed the war in Iraq. Then Sarkozy sucked up to Bush, and now faux-socialist Hollande sabotages or tries to sabotage Obama’s few progressive steps. Of course, France is a medium-sized power that cannot do much on its own. So France’s planes and macho bravado had to be camouflaged when the US decided not to bomb Syria. Yet in PR terms, a new French opposition to the United States is beneficial because it leads to some, admittedly marginal, commercial gains.
Former French criticism of US militarism or military adventurism was progressive; it was not necessarily socialist, but it was a voice, among many others, warning the United States about its “demons in the cellar” – to use Anatol Lieven’s phrase. Today, criticism of US use of drones would be in order. In the case of NSA spying activities, France’s reaction, compared with Brazil’s, was rather muted when it should have been loud (that is, if the French did not have their own version of illegal spying, too). Yet what the new neo-cons in France are doing is criticizing the United States for the wrong reasons. When Obama faces tough battles in the Senate, it is rather unfortunate that a difficult ally should prove as nasty as the warmongers and hawks in Congress.
Leftists in the United States frequently argue that Eisenhower today would be considered a dangerous radical, especially with his warning about the military-industrial complex. Hollande is said to have betrayed the left in his domestic agenda – but that betrayal is even clearer in his foreign policy. He stands to the right of De Gaulle in the company of American reactionaries. If this is “socialist,” then the world should be protected from such cynical hijacking of political labels.