My partner and I were sitting at a café table on the central square of the capital of a small country – does it matter which?- when a young woman approached and explained that her fiancé, who spoke no English at all, was sitting at a table further back and might we give a hand with a translation? Of course we agreed. The fiancé was an army procurement officer and he’d been handed a catalog of weaponry from a large international firm, with orders to spend. For the next half-hour we sat under sunbrellas in the pleasant square, picking at random, deciding the future of Fredonia. I don’t believe anybody ever got hurt.
The same cannot be said of Michèle Alliot-Marie, commonly known as MAM, the French Minister of State for Foreign and European Affairs, who is expected to resign today after a month of accumulating scandals that may well end forever France’s relationship with Tunisia and her former Empire. Three days before the fall of the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali, MAM suggested that French security forces might be able to “resolve these types of security problems,” meaning the demonstrations against him. Then it was revealed she had authorized the sale of tear-gas grenades to the Tunisian police – which never reached Tunisia. Then that brilliant satirical weekly, Le Canard enchaîné, revealed that MAM had been flown to Tunisia on the private plane of a wealthy Tunisian close to Ben Ali, and that her parents had come along to cut a business deal. The recently-installed Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs spoke up in her defense, and had to resign because of the public uproar. The newly installed French Ambassador to Lybia gave a conference in Tunis so full of what the French call “morgue” – the arrogance of the white upper classes – that he may well have to resign, himself. Alliot-Marie’s departure is merely symptomatic of the catastrophic tailspin of French foreign policy and influence: the long story of French Imperialism may be nearing its last chapter.
It’s hard to tell whether the cause of this collapse lies in the corrupt behavior of individuals or in a general lack of political skill, but then in Western Imperialism the political is the personal, and has been ever since Cicero took the Proconsul Verres to task, not for self-dealing in the plundering of Sicily (which was expected of him), but for doing it in such poor taste and in a manner that eventually betrayed the interests of the Republic. Charles de Gaulle (who knew his classics inside out) had a superb sense of this, to the point where the French Government encouraged and supported French artists and writers abroad who were sworn enemies of the regime and of the General in particular, since in the long run their fame served the interests of France – including its economic interests, of course. Those were the days when the French Department in most any American college was the happening place; for the past ten years of more it’s been the place where the French neo-liberal elite sends its children to make contacts with the children of the American neo-liberal elite, and where a typical conference or panel is not on Derrida or Sartre but on business opportunities in France.
Then again, business opportunity is what neo-liberal diplomacy’s all about. In 2002 fourteen naval construction workers were killed in Karachi when a bomb blew up their bus; eleven of them were French. Apparently some of the kickbacks promised to various French and Pakistani businesses had failed to materialize (the money may have gone to the French Prime Minister’s illegal campaign fund), and someone decided to get even. And yes, Sarkozy might have been involved, but then so might any number of his associates or friends, or neo-liberal competitors. What promises to come down with Ben Ali or Qaddafi is the whole culture of quid-pro-quo, of military open bars like the one I encountered, long ago – like those hundreds of tanks ordered from a French armaments maker that sit rusting in the desert of a small emirate; or the recent secret agreement between France and Lybia going back to 2007, the mention of which was recently disappeared from the web-site of the French embassy there. And of course there is much finger-pointing now in the French press, directed at Silvio Berlusconi and his too-tight ties with the Lybian regime: Hey, MAM-bo’! MAM-bo’ Italiano!
Every child in France is taught that France acquired an empire despite herself, really, because in 1830 the Bey of Algiers slapped the French ambassador so France was obliged to conquer Algeria to restore her honor, right? Perhaps there’s a nice symmetry there, and more than honor lost.
Wham, Bam, Thank you MAM.