Smacking the French Around

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Michael Portillo, writing in the Times of London does just that. To the French, grandstanding is their preferred method of diplomacy. Grand words and gestures and little or nothing of practical value. Yet the world, for some reason, still acts as if they actually are meaningful. Portillo takes them apart.

It had been a French general, Philippe Morillon, who as head of the UN forces in the former Yugoslavia had first pledged to protect Srebrenica. He did not have the resources to keep that promise and Dutch UN forces in the city did nothing to prevent the massacre. We (the other Nato defence ministers) found a word to describe the French habit of making impressive statements with no means to put them into effect. We called it “grandstanding”.

That gallic custom has been on display again over Lebanon. After the French had taken a vociferous lead in drafting the UN security council resolution that brought about the ceasefire, it was shocking to discover that France was offering just 200 soldiers towards a UN force of 15,000. Late last week, after wasting valuable time since hostilities ended nearly two weeks ago, President Chirac gave way. Having attracted the world’s scorn he raised his country’s offer to 2,000.

There is a cultural difference between the French and the British obvious in their diplomatic styles. The French believe that what they say is at least as important as what they do. They spin grandiloquent phrases and strike postures. Rhetoric is away of life and if you point out it is divorced from all strategic reality that is thought to be nitpicking.

The British, on the other hand, get engrossed in tedious detail like: “Is this practical? Who is going to supply the troops? What will be their rules of engagement?” With Lebanon the French have discovered phrase-making is not enough. In recent days they have become very practical, bleating that there are no established rules of engagement (governing what the soldiers can do and when they can fire) almost as though they were British.

If any country could have settled such important details in advance it is France. It took the kudos for working up the UN resolution. It acted as spokesman for the Arab world within the permanent five members of the council. It insisted that the resolution should not be made under chapter 7 of the UN charter, which would have given the troops the right to impose their will by force.

The unclear rules of engagement derive directly from the ambiguity of the French-inspired resolution. But France has nonetheless used the uncertainty as an excuse for delay. At any time France could have eased the problem by offering to lead the UN forces and proposing rules for all participants. Then every nation would insist on its own variations. They always do. French forces are now arriving in Lebanon with the mission and the rules still unspecified. Chirac claimed he had received assurances from the UN that enabled him to increase French numbers.

This is a world class smackdown of a country that deserves the world's scorn, not it's reverence. Double dealing and selling out allies is a way of life for French diplomacy. Saying grand things and doing nothing is a repeated pattern. The French people deserve better leadership than what they get routinely.

Then again, it has been a pattern for a very long time.

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