What are we to make of the latest broken stereotype, the one that portrays the French as Europe's leading surrender monkeys? After French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius rejected the latest "grand bargain" with Iran, the government of Francois Hollande suddenly looks rather more like a continental version of neoconservatism, and it's confusing, even shocking, to many.
The stereotype was nonsense. Indeed, France has long demonstrated a toughness, an independence, and even a ruthlessness of which most of our pundits have been either unaware or unwilling to credit. Just look at what they did in Mali! So even if you believe that the French broke ranks with her partners in the negotiations with Iran, you shouldn't act as if that's some sort of surprise. Ever since De Gaulle, the French have enjoyed challenging the United States and Great Britain.
These qualities are quite independent of the "color" of the French Government. They are in full evidence in governments of the right (De Gaulle, Chirac) and those of the left (Mitterrand, Hollande). My personal experience with a French Socialist Government during the early years of the Reagan Administration bear this out. Whenever I went to them with a proposal to act against our common enemies--typically terrorist groups in the Middle East--the French not only declared themselves fully supportive, but urged us to do even more, sometimes much more, than we had in mind. No sign of reluctance, no brandishing of white flags, no call for surrender.
The best example was told to me by General Vernon Walters, who was a friend and colleague at the Department of State, and among his many talents he was enviably fluent in French. When the United States decided to bomb Libya in mid-April, 1986, Walters--the Ambassador at Large--was sent to Paris to discuss the matter with President Francois Mitterrand. In addition to informing the French President, Walters had a request. The American bombers were going to fly from bases in Great Britain, and they could save many hours if they had permission to fly over France. Would Mitterrand give permission?
Mitterrand's response was a classic: "What is the purpose of the operation?" he asked. If we wished to remove Qadaffi, then the French would join with us. Indeed, not only would he OK the overflights, he would give us troops on the ground, additional aircraft, and even tanks. After all, the Foreign Legion was right there, ready to deploy.
On the other hand, Mitterrand continued, if the United States was simply going to make a gesture--drop a few bombs and leave it at that--then "perhaps it is better the pilots take the long way around."
When I read the first accounts of the French role at the Geneva talks, I was reminded of Mitterrand's answer to Walters. Yes, France wants a deal with Iran, Fabius has said, but a serious deal, not one that is clearly destined to fail (France was a party to such a deal ten years ago). And it may very well be that he convinced the others, including Secretary of State John Kerry, that it was important for the West to dig in its collective heels and insist on the three main points of contention: refusal to recognize an Iranian "right" to enrich uranium, the development of the heavy-water reactor at Arak must cease, and highly enriched uranium has to be turned over.
That would fit well with the way I think about French diplomacy, and would encourage me in thinking about other members of the Western negotiating team.