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Dispirited, France Looks Abroad

Prepared by: Michael Moran
August 10, 2006

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When France's dogged resistance to the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003 failed to prevent the U.S.-led invasion, French political analysts quickly turned inward, dropping references to her plucky grandeur and adopting, instead, the vocabulary of decline. Factors contributing to France's torpor include a dormant economy (Economist), troubles at Airbus, last summer's rioting in Muslim neighborhoods, broader protests to prevent reforms that would have opened better jobs to minorities, and even the marred exit of France's national squad from soccer's World Cup. "Deep malaise" is how President Jacques Chirac described it, and as he winds up his twelve-year tenure, Chirac himself draws historically low approval ratings (AP).

Yet France seemed to regain its confidence, at least in the diplomatic realm, with the onset of the fighting in Lebanon. Says the Economist, "Since the war began France has been keen to show its solidarité with the country it once ran." Though acknowledging the challenges of a military role, the piece added: "France is very much back in the Levant." The BBC's analysts go a step further, suggesting Chirac is out to show that U.S. mistakes have destabilized the Middle East "and that France can do better as the champion of an alternative European strategy."

While disagreements with Washington delayed the Security Council's formula for a ceasefire for weeks, the agreement late Friday reflected close cooperation between the U.S. and France. (BBC) Throughout this period, the United States has been glad for the help—winning France praise in odd places, like the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. This may not survive the ultimate UN agreement, of course, and already the blogging forerunners of neo-conservative thought in the United States are reviving the bad and not so old days of French-bashing. This Bush administration, however, no longer enjoys the luxury of unilateralism. With Britain and the United States overcommitted to Iraq and Afghanistan, France is the only major power with significant expeditionary capability and the willingness to lead a difficult intervention in Lebanon. It is also worth noting that Washington and Paris have worked together for years on Lebanon, and in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, it was a joint U.S.-French statement that ultimately led to Syria's withdrawal from the country in 2005.

Still, never underestimate the penchant of these two "partners" to fall out, warns Paris-based Expatica commentator Clair Whitmer: "Things are better, but too much damage has been done in the three short years since the American invasion of Iraq to recover from easily, even if French and American political interests do indeed again start to align." For a more historical take on Franco-American relations, see this examination of their shared history in Lebanon by Foreign Affairs' Jonathan Tepperman. American Diplomacy, a magazine written by U.S. Foreign Service officers, traces the post-war history of U.S.-French tensions. This MSNBC.com analysis recounts more recent French quarrels with the "hyperpower," and includes an interactive look at "France's Claim to World Power Status." Finally, here is UN Resolution 1559, demanding the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon and Hezbollah's disarmament.

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