Fury at the Elysée

In the fourth act of Molière’s work, Don Juan receives a visit from an impatient creditor, Mr. Dimanche. He resolves to use grand proclamations of friendship in order to satisfy the merchant and send him away without having paid him a dime. “He paid me so many civilities and compliments,” Mr. Dimanche later explains, “that I could never ask for any money from him.” Last June 24, Barack Obama doubtlessly resorted to some pleasantries of his own while he, once again, promised President François Hollande that he would no longer spy on the telephone conversations of his “indispensable partner.”

Is it because he feared French legal proceedings, a fine of some billions of euros (like the one that BNP Paribas settled with the U.S. Treasury), the cessation of negotiations regarding free trade with Europe, or a challenge to the Atlantic alliance? Certainly not. For a president of the United States, nothing is more malleable and less formidable than a French Socialist. Incidentally, not long after the discovery that U.S. intelligence agencies had spied on three successive French heads of state, government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll reacted with admirable calm: “Through all of this, we must remain rational, and we must set boundaries. We are not here to trigger diplomatic ruptures; there are too many connections.” He then flew to Washington in order to discuss the large trans-Atlantic market. His spokesmen doubtlessly already had some idea about his briefings.

Around 10 years earlier, as was revealed in WikiLeaks documents, several leaders of the Socialist Party (SP) marched on the United States Embassy in Paris. They then complained to George W. Bush’s special envoy about President Jacques Chirac’s excessively stark opposition to the war in Iraq. On May 29, 2006, Pierre Moscovici, who was in charge of international relations for the SP at the time, promised that a Socialist government would prove to be more pro-American than that of Dominique de Villepin. Some days later, on June 8, Hollande, then first secretary of the SP, lamented in front of the ambassador of the United States that Chirac had “gratuitously obstructed” the U.S. president.

But the French socialist’s “Atlanticism” invokes an even more glaring precedent. On June 24, 1981, François Mitterrand explained to George H.W. Bush, then vice president of the United States, why he had just appointed four communist ministers. “The Communists have accepted humiliation in exchange for four government positions … I can easily send them away if they don’t fit the bill … They will be forcefully associated with my economic policy and it will then be impossible for them to provoke social turmoil.” Journalist Philip Short, who consulted the official reports of this meeting, feels that Ronald Reagan’s right-hand man returned softened by such an argument. “Thanks to your explanations,” he told Mitterrand, “we understand each other much more clearly.”

President Reagan himself was absolutely reassured when less than two years later, Paris expelled 47 Soviet diplomats in one go. They were suspected of spying on France. “The Russians should understand that they are not dealing with a soft underbelly. When they do understand, this will work better,” the French head of state concluded.

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