The French Dissent: Is That a Crime?

Not quite one year ago, I spent a pleasant evening at the Pierre Hotel tasting the world’s best bottles of champagne. The occasion was a ceremony and dinner sponsored by the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne, an organization of growers, vintners and others involved in the production and distribution of that great beverage. For the first time in its history, the society held its annual induction rites in a foreign city. Before they started pouring the vintage bubbly, these chevaliers of Champagne explained why they had decided on this unusual change of venue.

They had traveled to New York to express their solidarity with the United States in the aftermath of Sept. 11. It was a small but affecting gesture by a group of French citizens to their American friends, at some considerable expense, which had nothing to do with commercial motives. (They’ve never had any trouble marketing their product in New York City.) The memory of that event is particularly vivid now, as our pundits and politicians resume the ritual flogging that recurs whenever France expresses disagreement with U.S. foreign policy. This time, however, the recriminations are uglier and the stakes are much higher than usual. The worldwide goodwill that accrued to the United States-with all that means for the very real war against Islamist terror-is being squandered in an orgy of tabloid bullying and sophomoric xenophobia.

A Pennsylvania legislator says he will introduce a resolution ordering the state’s Liquor Control Board to prohibit stores from carrying and selling alcohol imported from France. A Congressman from New Jersey proposes a resolution discouraging American corporate and government officials from attending the Paris Air Show. Led by those brilliant internationalists, Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert, the House Republicans are mulling restrictions on French wine and sparkling water.

The current chorus of ranting ranges from childish crap about “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” in the pages of The National Review to the usually level-headed Thomas Friedman’s musings in the New York Times Op-Ed page that France should be thrown off the U.N. Security Council and replaced by India-a nation he praises as “so much more serious than France these days.” The Indian government is serious indeed, as Mr. Friedman would know if he’d read the stunning investigation of its sponsorship of Hindu extremism and terror that recently appeared in his paper’s Sunday Magazine .

The French are derided as cowards by people like Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who somehow escaped the Vietnam draft. The French are accused of coveting Iraqi oil contracts, as if our insatiable need for petroleum had never influenced American policy in the Middle East. The French are accused of ingratitude, although most Americans remain ignorant of the critical role they played in our own revolution. In my hometown, there was an elementary school named for the Count de Rochambeau, yet nobody bothered to teach the children there about his gallant service to George Washington.

The alliance between our two countries was vexed even back then. When mighty France insisted that the fledgling United States tailor its foreign policy to French desires, we almost went to war. Now the power relationship is reversed, and our government demands that Paris endorse war against Iraq because Washington says so-no qualms or questions allowed. The abuse heaped upon the French suggests weakness rather than strength. Not military weakness, but the feebleness of an argument won by invective and threat. Last weekend’s marches demonstrated that the Quai d’Orsay is hardly alone in doubting that war is the only or the best solution to the problem of disarming Saddam Hussein. By backing France and Germany into a corner with jibes about “the old Europe,” the Bush administration has not only jeopardized any chance of cooperation on Iraq, but also endangered the future of the Atlantic alliance. That is a reckless mistake ,with consequences that defy prediction. Why should the ruin of NATO and possibly the United Nations be the price of allied dissent?

With considerable justification, the advocates of force believe that after a dozen years of irresolution, Saddam Hussein must be disarmed now. They note correctly that Saddam has only agreed to inspections under military pressure. The voices of caution in Paris and elsewhere mostly agree, but they see no immediate justification for a war likely to kill thousands of innocent people and provoke deeper hatred of the West in the Muslim world.

Whatever insults are hurled at France, its views are shared by most Europeans, including the people of Britain, as well as by the majority of nations on the Security Council, not to mention many American military leaders and quite a few ordinary Americans. Vilifying the French doesn’t invalidate that position-and throwing nasty tantrums only reduces American prestige, in an era when we need allies as much as they need us.