The only flaw in France, a wise man once said, is the people who live there. This is harsh, and unkind to hundreds, maybe thousands of nice Frenchmen, but the men elected to govern France invariably succeed in living up to Marianne's speckled reputation.
President Jacques Chirac and his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, set out yesterday to do what they could for Marianne and her reputation, and to reassure each other that France is, too, still consequential in the affairs of the world.
M. de Villepin, fearful of the Muslims looking over his shoulder to monitor his speech, gestures and behavior on behalf of Allah, told his parliament that there's no such thing as a "war on terror."
"Let us not forget that these crises play into the hands of all extremists," he said. "We can see this with terrorism, whether it tries to strike inside or outside our frontiers. Against terrorism, what's needed is not a war."
Every time we think we've been too hard on France, ordering only wines from the Napa Valley, dissing french fries and swearing off crème brulee, our froggie friends insist on living up to their reputation. M. de Villepin didn't have to tell us that France thinks "what's needed is not a war." We knew that. France never thinks war is necessary, as the men who sleep in the American and British cemeteries on the bluff overlooking the Normandy beaches learned six decades ago.
M. Chirac, visiting a nuclear simulation station at Bruyeres-le-Chatel, near Paris, boasted that France would continue to maintain a nuclear arsenal. "In an uncertain world, facing constantly evolving threats, nuclear dissuasion guarantees our vital interests. There can be no great ambition without adequate means, that's clear. The position of countries is never guaranteed." The message seemed clear enough: The Americans and the British may not always be top dogs in the world, and France is determined to defend its 265 cheeses, with nuclear weapons if necessary.
M. de Villepin couldn't resist boasting of le majeste of France, or so he thought, but he only reminded everyone of hard times France wants the world to forget about. "It is the duty of France," he said, "to show that the clash of civilizations is not inevitable. No one retains this wisdom, inherited from our history, as we, French and Europeans, do." And if you don't believe France knows how to prevent the clash of arms, you could go to Vichy to see the proof.
The prime minister's pointed remarks were aimed squarely at George W. Bush, spoken only a day after Mr. Bush, confirming that the CIA had interrogated dozens of terrorist suspects in secret foreign locations, said the war on terror the war that France has no kidney for had prevented a reprise of September 11. The interrogations had broken up an al Qaeda plot to manufacture anthrax and fly airplanes into office buildings again. He urged Congress to enact laws to give the interrogation program official status.
Defending ourselves makes sense to most Americans, but actually fighting for survival with real guns and real bullets is frightening stuff for the French. Our froggie friends long ago perfected surrender as the ultimate weapon of war, but any American president Republican or Democrat or Whig who surrenders like the French would be asking for a ride on a rail straight to the hanging tree.
President Bush has made mistakes in the war on terror, beginning with his reluctance to call the enemy by its right name, "Islamic fascism." Americans understand that "Islam" and "fascism" are not synonymous; no other country in the world, except perhaps Britain, would have shown such forbearance in the face of such provocation. The president erred further by not saying in the beginning that the war could not be fought on the cheap, that sacrifice would be required at home as well as sacrifice by the men and women sent to the shooting war. Now he must say that we will survive, by whatever means necessary, with friends or without if fighting the war alone becomes necessary. Americans have a reputation for giving a fight to whoever asks for it. We intend to live up to our reputation, too.