We're more than “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

September 10, 2021   4 mins

On 12 September 2001, Le Monde, the bulletin board of the French political and intellectual elites, carried a front page shocker signed by its editor-in-chief. Its headline — in the country of Charles de Gaulle! — was “We are all Americans.”

“How could we not feel, as in the darkest times in our history, a deep solidarity with the people of the United States, to whom we are so close, and to whom we owe our freedom?” wrote Jean-Marie Colombani, possibly the then-most powerful opinion-maker in France, in that special grandiloquent style the French adopt to signal momentous thought. In the next paragraph, he warned the West not to fall for the “monstrous hypocrisy” of “finding excuses for the perpetrators of this murderous madness, crediting them with the ‘good intentions’… to avenge the wretched of the world against their supposed sole oppressor, America… They do not want a better, fairer world. They simply want to wipe ours off the map.”

Strong words after the shock of 9/11. The last paragraph of this 1250-word tirade did warn, accurately as it turned out, against escalation — “[the terrorists’] attitude is obviously suicidal. By going to the extremes, they want to force Muslim opinions to ‘choose sides’ against ‘the great Satan’ [and] to spread an unprecedented crisis throughout the Arab world. They want to attract the whirlwind. Our leaders must see the danger of causing the nations these warmongers covet to buy into this suicidal logic.”

Le Monde duly supported the French government’s October 2001 decision to join both the US-led military coalition for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, as well as the NATO international security task force. This, despite France not being bound by NATO’s charter (having been spectacularly pulled out of the Organisation by Charles de Gaulle in 1966), was met by popular support that never rose to jingoism. Both Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist president, and Lionel Jospin, the Socialist PM he’d been forced to take on when his party lost the surprise 1997 General Election, were for once in agreement. France sent 4,000 crack troops. By 2010, the French were the fourth largest contributor to the war in Afghanistan (after the US, UK and Italy).

Not only did France carry her weight during the War on Terror; her expertise on Arab and Islamic terrorism was invaluable, acknowledged by both the Americans and the British. French investigative magistrates draw on over half a century’s experience with every variety of bloody attacks: during the Algerian War of Independence in the 1950s-1960s; Left-wing Palestinian in the 1970s; Iranian in the 1980s; Algerian again in the 1990s as France became the hinterland of the 1992-2000 civil war in her former colony. When 9/11 came, only the scope of it was different from what the juges d’instruction had been working on for decades.

The French decision to leave Afghanistan in 2012, was met with relative public indifference, which is a more normal response The Constitution of the Fifth Republic, tailored to Charles de Gaulle’s specific measurements, states (Art. 15) that the President of the Republic is “the head of the armed forces, decides on the use of military force and to this end has the responsibility and the power to engage nuclear forces if necessary”. Essentially, the otherwise-ornery French have left successive presidents to it. Even before Jacques Chirac put an end to conscription in 2002, there were next to no protests when the French military, including conscripts, were deployed in Lebanon, Chad, Kosovo or Bosnia.

The French see their military (and nuclear capacity) as part of a cherished mental dreamland: it’s the last acceptable refuge of the Grandeur invoked from Louis XIV to Le Général. This Grandeur sublimates France from mid-size power to major player, with a seat at the Security Council, an impressive armaments industry for a country of 67 million people, a capacity of foreign deployment roughly similar to the UK’s (currently 17,000 troops from the North Sea to the Pacific, Sub-Saharan Africa, Syria and the Baltics), and the respect of her soldierly peers. From the 19th century, the French Army, whose officers signally refused to back populist leaders like Général Boulanger, has been known as La Grande Muette (The Great Mute): this held during the Algerian Independence war when two generals-led military coups ended in ignominious failure. It’s the civilians, not the military, who, from Danton to the Yellow vests, try to overturn the Republic.

Predictably, perhaps, the post World Trade Center transatlantic love affair soured fast. Dominique de Villepin, Chirac’s grand-standing Foreign Secretary (an obsessive collector of Napoleoniana, he has taken on some of the traits of his hero), came to speak to the UN General Assembly one year after the attacks, on 12 September 2002, and again on 14 February 2003, to urge jaw-jaw and not war. He brushed off any illusion that, after Afghanistan, France would also join the coalition to unseat Saddam Hussein from his quarter century iron rule over Iraq. The French sat out the Iraqi war, earning themselves a variety of soubriquets, the nicest of which, “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”, had been stolen from The Simpsons.

As it turned out, France was right, but for an unholy combination of cleverness and wrong-headedness. The French, who over the years had furnished Saddam with some $5.1 billion’s worth of weapons for his eight-year-war against Iran, not including the making of his fledgling nuclear capacity, also knew that Germany had built the plants that enabled Iraq to manufacture the Sarin and Tabun gas that killed 5,000 Kurds at Halabja. In other words, if anyone knew that Saddam Hussein was in the process of obtaining WMD, they sat in government offices in Paris — none more so than Jacques Chirac, who’d started cultivating the Baath ruler of Iraq since 1974. The French pushback against “Iraqi Freedom”, which would turn out to be an inspired decision, and keep us out of that mess, was more motivated by deep cynicism than by the romantic illusion that deposing a brutal Middle-Eastern dictator would start “a virtuous circle of democracy” in the area. (Prof. Bernard Lewis’s phrase.)

Like every French president and Foreign secretary since de Gaulle, Chirac and Villepin prided themselves in understanding what they saw as the realities of the Middle East. The Quai d’Orsay, the French Foreign Ministry, has long pushed la politique arabe de la France. This is a mix of heady Gallic Orientalism, cold calculations (all those Mirage and Super-Étendard planes, Exocet missiles, helicopters, air-to-surface guided missiles, and more), power assessment, and entrenched underlying anti-Americanism (which often lumps the British in the Anglo-Saxon package).

It’s also arguable that the practice of French politics (the alliances, the reversals, the treasons, the conviction that idealism is for mugs) is much closer to Near East traditions than to the Jeffersonian (or Burkean) approach. It remains that French scepticism, in this instance, was inspired.

That isn’t to say that France will never ever engage in an ill-advised war. But if that does happen, you can bank on her reasons being a lot more complicated than the George and Tony show.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a Paris-based journalist and political commentator.