France and the Arab World

By , William Echickson, a former Monitor correspondent, writes from Paris.

JUST around the corner from my apartment there's a small neighborhood grocery store. The owner's name is Sami. He came from Tunisia 10 years ago. Through hard work, Sami carved out a place for himself in France. Most French grocery stores close on Sundays and at 7 p.m. on weekday evenings. Sami stays open on Sundays and until 10 p.m. each evening.

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Sami condemned him. Aggression is aggression, he explained. But when the American-led attack struck back at Iraq, Sami's feelings changed.

``Everybody around me is pro-Iraqi,'' he says. ``We just can't stand seeing an Arab nation bombarded like that.''

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Sami's reaction shows France's special sensitivities about the Gulf war - and why the French fear unrest among Arabs abroad and at home. If the war leaves the Arab world in turmoil, the United States can retreat back behind the safety of the giant Atlantic Ocean. The French and the other Europeans have nowhere to go.

All of Europe feels pressure from the Arab world. More than 3 million Arabs live in France. Several million Muslim Turks live in Germany and many are being pushed out of work by former East Germans entering the job market. Britain boasts a large Muslim Pakistani population.

The Gulf war could cause a new wave of Muslim immigration. Egyptian workers, forced to leave the Gulf, returned home to find no jobs. Newspapers here report many of them have used their savings to take ``vacations'' in Greece. From there, the Egyptians can easily move to richer horizons in Europe and make their ``vacations'' permanent.

Several million Arabs are American citizens. But the impact is not the same. For Americans, the best analogy is Mexico. Two worlds clash at the Rio Grande, the first-world US against the third-world Mexico. Waves of impoverished immigrants have headed north for decades. But imagine the problems if Mexico plunged into political chaos.

Hopes for a democratic evolution in the Arab world have been crushed. Before the war, Jordan, Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia were moving cautiously toward free elections. In the present heated atmosphere, no one now expects any of these countries to carry out such a vote. A more likely possibility is the rise of either a rigid Islamic fundamentalist regime or nasty military rule led by generals ```a la Saddam,'' says French Middle Eastern expert Remy Levaux.

``We knew the Mahgreb countries were unstable, but the situation is worse than we expected, particularly in Morocco,'' a French diplomat says. ``King Hassan could fall any day.''

Fears of a chaotic Arab world explain France's hesitation in joining the US-led coalition against Iraq. Up to the last moment, France promoted its own separate peace plan calling for an international peace conference on Palestine in return for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. President Fran,cois Mitterrand reluctantly joined the allies once war became inevitable. But Defense Minister Chevenement resigned when he saw the war would be long, bloody, and with dire consequences for France's Arab policy.

After the war ends, French differences with Washington over how to win the peace will reemerge. In the French view, Washington's overall goal in the Middle East is limited to assuring access to the region's oil supplies.

The French perceive their own interest in the region as defusing the time bomb of Arab economic underdevelopment and political frustration. Paris will push for an international peace conference, along with the launch of a giant development program to rebuild Iraq and spread Gulf wealth through the Arab world.

The French view has little chance of being heard. After the two big events of the past year - the creation of a united, powerful Germany, and the renaissance of US power in the Gulf - France faces an existential crisis. ``France's position in the world as an independent player is over,'' says Ghassan Salame of the French Institute of Political Science.

This weakness could force France into greater cooperation with other Europeans. British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd recently met with French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, and the two men expressed agreement on the postwar Gulf agenda. After acting separately in the run-up to war against Iraq, could it be that the Europeans will join together later to have their voices heard? Professor Salame, French policymakers, and my Arab grocer Sami all hope so.

``Let's hope that this war doesn't ruin everything,'' Sami says, greeting a French customer with two kisses on her cheek. ``You see, we get along.''

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