Monday, March 28, 2011

France, war and the denial of history

Recent history contains several examples of political leaders resorting to military action at times when public opinion is against them. Margaret Thatcher is widely credited with securing re-election in 1983 after going to war over those outposts of empire, the Falkland Islands, at a time of mass unemployment in Britain. Bill Clinton tried to distract attention from sexual peccadilloes that affected nobody beyond his immediate family in 1998 by bombing Afghanistan and Sudan. The resulting destruction of a Sudanese factory that was a principal supplier of medicines in a poor African country was deemed unworthy of comment by a supine US press.

Nicolas Sarkozy seems to be following the Thatcher/Clinton trend. One year before a presidential election, he has both political rivals and nominally independent editorial writers praising his hawkish stance on Libya.

France’s opening salvo of missiles against Libya has helped its president “win back his international stature”, according to Agence France-Presse. That verdict may have been slightly premature: there are rumblings of disquiet in NATO about France trying to upstage other “important” countries by making sure it was the first to attack.

The truth behind Sarkozy’s manoeuvre is doubtlessly crude. Sarkozy’s primary motivation in any major decision he takes is how it meshes with his plan to stay in office for as long as possible. So all his talk about being forced to assume a role “in the face of history” is claptrap. What he is really interested in is winning a second term.

You can be sure that Sarkozy has not been staying up at night shedding tears over how ordinary Libyans have been suffering under Muammar Gaddafi’s tyranny. Rather than protecting civilians, he is much more likely to be concerned with protecting the profits of Total, the French energy giant, which produced an average of 55,000 barrels of oil from Libyan wells per day in 2010. Let us remember that the same Sarkozy came out in favour of a ban on investment in Burma a few years back. The small print to his valiant act of support for Buddhist monks had an important caveat: Total could continue exploiting Burmese resources as before.

Nor should it be forgotten that Sarkozy had courted Gaddafi assiduously over the past few years. Business deals were central to this tawdry alliance. In 2009, the value of declared French arms sales to Libya came to €30.5 million. Ominously, these included nearly €500,000 worth of contracts belonging to a category called chemical and biological weapons and tear gas. They also included €17.5 million in sales of military planes. There is a breathtaking hypocrisy in calling for a no-fly zone against a country to which France had been supplying warplanes.

It is distressing, too, that the French Socialists have abandoned the chief responsibility of an opposition party: to oppose. Benoit Hamon, a leading member of the Socialists, has strongly backed Sarkozy on the Libya question.

Although Libya is a former Italian colony, rather than a French one, France has abetted crimes against humanity in various parts of the neighbouring region. Both Socialists and the centre-right in France are refusing to deal with imperialism’s toxic legacy. In 2005, they teamed up to introduce a provision in national law requiring that school textbooks celebrate “the positive role of the French presence in its overseas colonies, especially in North Africa.”

That amounted to a denial of historical reality. Four years earlier a book by Paul Assauresses revealed how France had supported widespread torture in Algeria, Libya’s next-door-neighbour. Assauresses admitted that as a French general he personally had committed grotesque abuses.

The US may be the world’s imperial leviathan today, yet French politicians are playing a supporting role. In his book The Breaking of Nations, Robert Cooper (now a senior official in the EU’s diplomatic service) lauds “limited form of voluntary empire” that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund embody. The IMF is headed by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a veteran French Socialist whose name keeps popping up whenever there is speculation about who could be the next president of his country (assuming Sarkozy’s defeat).

Strauss-Kahn has embraced neo-liberal ideology as zealously as any politician from the centre-right. The IMF’s prescriptions of austerity for countries stretching from Ireland to Jamaica in recent times all bear his signature. The idea that he would represent an alternative to his old nemesis Sarkozy is laughable.

There may be a few differences between Sarko and the Socialists on dossiers like working hours. But the Socialist leadership is not seriously interested in making society more egalitarian (in the country that is credited with inventing the concept of equality). Martine Aubry, its leader, has been exposed as a hollow opportunist. Last year, she was highly critical of government moves to expel Roma gypsies. Yet it emerged that she had supported the dismantlement of a Roma camp near Lille, where she was mayor. I have visited some of the Roma camps in that part of northern France myself and was deeply shocked by the poverty in them and how they lacked basic sanitation. Roma are among the most marginalised people in French society; shame on Aubry for attacking them.

The cowardice of the French Socialists is replicated by their sister parties in Greece, Spain and Ireland. Those parties are all cutting back on public expenditure in a way that harms the poor most. The case for building a genuine left has never been more urgent.

·First published by New Europe (, 27 March – 2 April 2011

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