France and Iraq · From the Former to the New Order

Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, Research Fellow at the Thomas More Institute

November 12, 2010 • Analysis •

Text of the intervention of Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier at the the conference « International Middle East Congress – Iraq », organized on November 10-12, 2010, in Hatay (Turkey).

Firstly, I would like to thank the organisers of this important conference for their invitation, for which I feel sincerely honoured. I have been invited to develop the following subject: the place of Iraq in French geopolitical representations and diplomacy. We all recall, on the one hand, the links that Paris maintained with the old former Iraqi state, and on the other hand, the diplomatic crisis between France and the United States in 2002 and 2003. Iraq is a key country in French perception and perhaps all the more so in the foreign perception of French policy.

During the Iraqi crisis, France’s position appeared simultaneously as the expression of an old focus – the “Arab policy” inherited from De Gaulle- and special links between Paris and Baghdad, more specifically between Jacques Chirac and Saddam Hussein. Everybody wanted to draw attention to the economic dimension, indeed the business dimension, of this “special relationship”.

As always, the situation is more complex. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this crisis and the war that followed highlighted the gap between French perceptions and the regional geopolitical realities. France appeared as a power committed to maintaining a status quo which no longer existed.

Since then, the establishment of a new Iraqi state and the redefinition of regional geopolitical balances have accelerated transformations in French representations and diplomacy.

Consequently, I am going to give a historical overview to put French-Iraqi relations in perspective, not with the goal of doing a historian’s job, but to highlight both the inertia and the renewal of the perceptions which partly determine the French approach to questions of security in Iraq and, more broadly, in the Middle East.

Iraq and France’s “Arab Policy”

The close relations between the French and Iraqi governments during the 1970s and 80s have often been distorted by the vision of De Gaulle’s “Arab policy”. We must begin by going back to this point.

As a matter of fact, De Gaulle did not have much sympathy for Arab nationalism. Let us recall simply that he supported the Suez intervention in November 1956. We also have to bear in mind the “debit” of the Algerian war (1954 to 1962). In his speech made after the Six Days War in November, the 27th, 1967, De Gaulle returned to the geopolitical context, it was not a seminal speech. In addition, De Gaulle gave up power in 1969, only two years later.

De Gaulle certainly knew how to play on oppositions between Arab nationalism and American politics in the region in order to build up French diplomacy, but he gave much more importance to South-East Asia as a confrontation ground between East and West.

It was largely due to Georges Pompidou (1969 to 1974), and even more so with Valery Giscard d’Estaing (1974 to 1981), that French diplomacy developed the discourse of “Arab politics”. As Prime Minister from 1974 to 1976, Jacques Chirac fostered a personal relationship with Saddam Hussein and established strong relations with Iraq. This policy was perpetuated after his office.

The stakes of this special relationship are economic, involving the signing of big contracts, on both civil and military levels. Iraq was identified as a key country, with significant development potential and enormous financial means as a result of its petroleum exports.

At the same time, French leaders experienced a sense of satisfaction at rivalling London and Washington in a region that had appeared as exclusive Anglo-American spheres of interest ever since the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire.

However, the geopolitical stakes were even higher. Linked to the USSR since 1972, Saddam Hussein wished to increase his leeway by securing a close relationship with France. In the context of the Cold War, the United States did not look upon the situation unfavourably and the Franco-American diplomatic rivalry did not exclude geopolitical collusion; France and the United States are allies.

The Paris-Baghdad relationship also had a nuclear dimension and one has to acknowledge that the fight against proliferation was not yet one of the priorities of French diplomacy.

When François Mitterrand was elected President in May 1981, he came across as being more reserved regarding the nature and the closeness of Franco-Iraqi relations. Nevertheless, the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran War (1980 to 1988) and the fears aroused by the Iranian Islamic Revolution led to the strengthening of diplomatic and military support for Saddam Hussein’s regime- without, however, getting back on track in terms of nuclear cooperation (on the 7th of June 1981, the Osirak nuclear power centre was destroyed).

The invasion of Kuwait and the weakening of ties between Paris and Baghdad

The invasion of Kuwait, on August, the 2nd, 1990, and the war that followed had important consequences on the course of relations between Paris and Baghdad which would no longer be what they had been before.

As a Security Council member charged with specific responsibilities, France could not accept the disappearance of a state belonging to the UN and the challenging of the intangibility of borders. Jacques Chirac himself backed the position of François Mitterrand.

Furthermore, France had other partners in the Persian Gulf, anxious to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait and to counterbalance Baghdad. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and even Qatar (to give several examples) expected a strong commitment from Paris on this issue.

Finally, Paris could not shirk its responsibilities with regards to France’s alliance with the United States and other Western powers. After trying to persuade Saddam Hussein to evacuate Kuwait, François Mitterrand rounded up a coalition made up of a number of Arab countries, including Syria.

Thus, the war that followed highlighted the numerous divisions within the Arab world and as a result, undermined France’s discourse on the “Arab policy”. François Mitterrand’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Roland Dumas, underlined the lack of meaning of this expression:

“To evoke the Arab world is a myth in itself. « An » Arab policy is another myth. (…) We are pursuing policies which are not the same in their daily implementation. General De Gaulle’s Arab policy was a succession of illusions. Myths die hard.”

The presidential election of Jacques Chirac in 1995 did not change the dynamic, in spite of his proclaimed willingness to restructure the “Arab policy” (speech in Cairo, 8 April 1996).

On the question of Iraq, Jacques Chirac tried to distinguish himself from the Anglo-American policy of the 1990s and he laid the grounds for a lifting of the embargo but the numerous obstacles that Saddam Hussein set up in order to hamper UNSCOM inspectors, followed by their dismissal, did not make Chirac’s task any easier.

In fact, Jacques Chirac considered that Saddam Hussein was not acting fairly with him and that he had not been able to be the “De Gaulle of the Middle East”. Chirac’s diplomatic priorities were different (the European Union, the reform of NATO, France’s relations with Russia).

Consequently, one must not misinterpret the ins and outs of the Franco-American crisis in 2002-2003, on the topic of going to war against Iraq. During the Iraqi crisis, the French concern to make the UN prevail, the misunderstandings between Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush, and even internal political factors in France, were considered much more important than the heritage of relations between Paris and Baghdad.

On the public level, at the UN, the French discourse was forceful and emphatic. Within influential circles, the risks and pitfalls of a military intervention in Iraq in particular were brought up,, along with the possible repercussions in the region (Jacques Chirac was obsessed with the idea of the Shiite Arc). In fact, the French stance was inspired by cautiousness rather than voluntarism.

The limited effective influence on the course of events, the turnaround of a certain number of regional partners and the rupture in the geopolitical balance contributed to a deep questioning of French diplomacy in the region. De facto, France’s « Arab policy » was refocused on Maghreb and Lebanon.

The new approach of French diplomacy

Without any self-satisfaction, we could point to the fact that French diplomacy correctly anticipated some of the difficulties which the United States and the coalition came up against in Iraq. That would be simplistic and even out of place.

On the other hand, one must acknowledge the prolonged immobility of French positions in the region. This status quo policy focused more on personal relations with “the strong men” in the region than on the populations’ aspirations. Their concern with avoiding the collapse of the regimes in place, for fear of worse (the Islamists and the ensuing chaos), turned out to be more important than the need for reforms, which may have led French leaders to not pay sufficient attention to the dynamics and procedures underway.

Furthermore, French policy cannot detach itself from this region- the Middle East is the “Gordian knot” of the world- and developments in the Iranian nuclear crisis have very quickly brought us back to reality. It is for this reason that it was decided to open a military base in Abu Dhabi, to mark France’s biggest engagement in this “arc of crises” (from North Africa to the edge of South Asia), alongside the United States.

We must now insist on the fact that French diplomacy is taking a different look at Iraq and the future of Iraq. Certainly, the difficulties remain- notably in terms of security – and the road to good governance in Iraq will be long. France is widely engaged in this process. However, we must acknowledge the progress accomplished with regards to freedom of the press, the creation of a multi-party system and the “opening up” of Iraqi society to the rest of the world.

French diplomacy no longer dreads the dismantling of Iraq and its splitting up into diverse ethno-confessional communities. Iraqi nationalism appears to be strong enough to overcome internal divisions and to identify balance points between these communities.

The historic roots of Mesopotamia are deep enough to nurture the pride of Iraqis and honest patriotism. While Iraqi leaders are mindful of consulting their neighbours, in Paris we consider it erroneous to think that one or the other could be a simple figurehead. Even the United States have a weaker hold on domestic policy balances and the “policy making process” than they appear to.

In this regard, one must stress the fact that French diplomats appreciate the strong diplomatic and economic engagement of Turkey in the new Iraq for its true worth (even if our industry professionals are less appreciative on the commercial level).

In the long term, the economic and political development of Iraq and its transformation into a pluralistic constitutional regime with the support of the Turkish parliamentary democracy is very definitely a guarantee of security in the region. This diplomatic axis opens the field of possibilities in a space that no fatality, historic or otherwise, can condemn to under-development or to the curse of raw materials (“Dutch disease”).


In conclusion, one must insist that the objective of such an assessment is not to mimick the old Hegelian sage in asserting that history progresses of necessity under a negative light. Very often, history turns out to be tragic and errors of analysis are also often moral faults. We have to bear in mind this truth.

The operation that is being carried out in Iraq highlights the difficulties of “nation building”. It most certainly does not suffice to resort to individuals, divested of their beliefs and identity, or to “civil society”, without reference to real society, to establish a representative regime. As for pure force, we have seen its limitations and political art must guide its use, a use that should be cautiously defined.

However, taking identities and human diversity into account should not lead to a relativism whereby all things are equal, which would lead us to diverse forms of nihilism. One must be wary of a false tolerance which is only the mask of indifference from Western public opinions and the excuse for state cynicism or wheeling and dealing.

The difficulty lies in a balanced approach. Acknowledging singularities to open up to what is universal and vertical. Recognising that “man is a wolf to man” (Thomas Hobbes) so as to establish order and pacify, as far as possible, the relations maintained by people and political societies.

It is not an easy path, indeed, but it is certainly the right way. Thank you for your attention.