France's pro-Arab policies sometimes pay dividends. But popularity comes at a priceby Tim King / October 23, 2004 / Leave a comment
Eighteen months after the invasion of Iraq, France is increasingly proud of its decision not to join the US-led coalition. Until recently, it was assumed that this opposition would render French citizens immune from danger, with many American and British journalists “pretending they are French when they go into hot spots,” according to Georges Malbrunot, a French journalist working for Le Figaro. A few days after writing these lines, he himself was kidnapped in Iraq, along with his colleague Christian Chesnot. Nevertheless, believing them immune, the French embassy in Baghdad was not initially worried. Four days later, however, French secret service agents were alarmed to discover that the journalists were being held by a group of Wahabbi fundamentalists. On the sixth day, Al-Jazeera broadcast a video of the hostages saying that unless the French government repealed its new law banning headscarves in state schools, they would be executed. The French government responded strongly. Michel Barnier, the foreign minister, was sent to mobilise support in all middle eastern countries having some influence on the kidnappers – Egypt, Jordan, Qatar. Meanwhile in France, interior minister Dominique de Villepin set out to win the backing of the two organisations representing French Muslims: the official CFCM and the more powerful UOIF. The government-created CFCM was no problem, but the more militant UOIF, with its roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, was trickier. Only a month earlier, it had been exhorting French Muslim schoolgirls to defy the headscarf ban. In secret talks throughout August, de Villepin had been trying to persuade the group to modify its objections, and by their final meeting it looked as though a compromise might be reached. That was on the 27th August; the next day came Al-Jazeera’s broadcast that unless the law was repealed, the hostages would be killed. President Chirac made it plain he would not repeal the law. De Villepin, having edged the UOIF to the brink of compromise, had no idea how it would react to this new situation. It was no longer a question of tacit back-tracking by the UOIF: it was going to have to renounce all its earlier criticisms of the law and proclaim publicly that France is a secular democracy where all religions are treated fairly. If it refused, the country would be dangerously divided. But the meeting hastily convened for the 29th August hung on a thread.
The press conference which followed has been hailed as a triumph of republican values. “We live our religion in France fully and freely,” Fouad Allaoui, general secretary of UOIF announced, to general stupefaction. But it was the young, veiled Fatiha Ajbli who stole the show. “My headscarf will not be stained by blood,” she read. “I offer myself as a substitute hostage.” Journalists became lyrical, and to the delight of the government, television news editors the world over played the clip again and again.
The next day the interior ministry organised a rally so the prime minister’s wife could be filmed greeting headscarfed women before the world’s lenses. Dewy-eyed Muslims sang the “Marseillaise” (non-violent verses only) and even Al-Manar, the about-to-be-proscribed Hizbullah television channel, was allowed to interview a minister. And a day later de Villepin was at the Paris mosque to show that laïcité does not exclude religion, that life in France is truly tolerant.
Meanwhile, in the middle east, Barnier was also enjoying some success, France’s pro-Arab policies were paying dividends. Alone of all western nations, crowed the press, France is admired by all Arab governments, endorsed by Islamic authorities both moderate and extreme. Yasser Arafat, Hizbullah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Gaddafi in Libya, imams in Pakistan, the Arab League, Tariq Ramadan, even Al-Jazeera television: they all declared that France is the friend of Iraq, of all Arabs, of all Islam. The list of endorsements is impressive – especially since French soldiers are active in Afghanistan hunting al Qaeda, while Chirac says nothing about Muslim suffering in Chechnya and openly supports doubtful regimes in Algeria and Morocco. As for “friend of Iraq,” that surely refers to a time when Saddam was still signing the cheques. The list of those endorsing France also has notable gaps – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria and the new Iraq. Paris decided not to ask for the help of either Iraq’s provisional government or the Americans because, it said, it might jeopardise the safety of the hostages. This undiplomatic assertion provoked an undiplomatic response from the interim prime minister in Iraq, which caused Chirac to cancel the official visit to France by the interim president of Iraq. For Paris, this spat was part of the strategy, to reinforce in Arab eyes France’s independence from the US.
Like Britain, France has a long history of influence in the middle east, but whereas Britain let its slip, France had greater foresight. Chirac naturally sees the French system as the best, but he recognises that other systems may work in their own context. He does not believe that democracy has to be forced on countries everywhere.
But France’s popularity comes at a price. Middle eastern countries will continue to support him as long as he spearheads their interests – that is, Islamic interests – within the EU. Recently this meant France supporting Turkey’s application to join the EU, against the will of most French people. Similarly the deal made with Muslim organisations to support the headscarf ban will have a price. Greater representation in public life could be one bargaining chip. Government subsidies for mosques and Islamic schools may be another. Whatever the terms, though, the government cannot admit such a deal has been made, since the 1905 law separating state and church forbids it. But one certain outcome of the hostage crisis is that French Muslims will end up with greater clout.
Whereas most western governments maintain a gently, or in the US case strongly, pro-Israel sympathy, France – ever the exception – is broadly pro-Arab. That does not mean that it is anti-Israel – it has the largest Jewish population in Europe (650,000), as well as the largest Muslim population (often quoted as 5m) – but that very imbalance makes it seem increasingly anti-Jewish to the Jewish communities of other countries. Of the record 300 anti-Jewish incidents in the first eight months of this year, so far only 46 have led to prosecution. Bald statistics like these are used to counter Chirac’s claims of fair treatment for all: in July, Ariel Sharon publicly called on all Jews to leave France.
To correct this perceived imbalance, American Jewish organisations want to boost the pro-Jewish lobby in France. To that end, according to the New York Jewish newspaper, Forward, the American AJCommittee recently signed an agreement to help fund the vocal Union des patrons et professionels juifs de France which itself actively backs election candidates. Another target for American Jewish money, since French foreign policy is dictated by the president, could be the presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, whose maternal grandfather converted from Judaism to Catholicism in the 1930s. But any funding of politicians, particularly by a religious group, runs counter to French law and practice. This has not yet been picked up by the press. When it is, it will provoke a storm. Israel’s ambassador to France, Nissim Zvili, recently wrote to his superiors in Tel Aviv warning them of “the potential negative consequences” of this funding. Any perception of American Jewish money – about $15m so far, it is said – bankrolling politics in France would harm French Jews, says CRIF the official voice of French Jews. But the increased power of Muslims, after the kidnap saga, is bound to mean increased counter-activity from Jews – in which case the kidnappers’ aim, to divide France down this volatile sectarian line, could yet be achieved.