Why? The usual reasons apply France's enormous Iraqi oil contracts and enormous unpaid Iraqi loans that would vanish with Saddam Hussein. But they don't suffice to explain such an ambitious enterprise. There is another reason, far more powerful. The Iraq crisis, and the roiling uneasiness in the world about U.S. policy, have provided France with an opportunity for the ultimate grand stroke an attempt to actually break the American monopoly of power in the world. This is geopolitics at the highest level, and the French, who have been banished from the game for a good half-century, cannot resist the lure of playing it again.
France is not trying to contain Iraq. After all, it spent the 1990s at the U.N. relentlessly trying to undo containment of Iraq. France is trying to contain the U.S.
In 1991, the bipolar world of U.S.-Soviet domination collapsed. At the time, it was assumed that the new world would be multipolar, with the U.S., the European Union, Japan, Russia and a rising China sharing power and balancing one another.
That did not happen. What emerged instead was a unipolar world, the U.S. bestriding the globe like a colossus, more dominant in every field of endeavor economic, military, diplomatic, cultural, even linguistic than any other nation since Rome.
This the French cannot abide. We Americans marvel at the polls showing how many people consider George W. Bush a greater danger to the world than Saddam Hussein. Yet the President of France himself flirts with this demonology when he tells TIME, "Any community with only one dominant power is always a dangerous one." Translation: American power in and of itself is a global menace.
"This is not about Saddam Hussein, and this is not even about regime change in Iraq or ... missiles or chemical weapons," explains Pierre Lellouche, a conservative Parliament member and former foreign-policy adviser to Jacques Chirac. "It's about whether the United States is allowed to run world affairs."
Chirac does not imagine that he will create a military bloc to confront the U.S., as did the Soviet Union. What he is trying to establish is something only slightly less ambitious: an oppositional bloc, a restraining bloc, a French-led coalition of nations challenging the hegemony of American power and the legitimacy of American dominance.
It was Charles de Gaulle who first charted this course. He tried to break away from the U.S. by, for example, ordering American troops out of France and withdrawing from the military structure of NATO. But during the cold war this was not realistic. The Soviet threat loomed. Today, with the Warsaw Pact dead, France can safely make its reach for grandeur.
De Gaulle said he was motivated always by "a certain idea of France." Nostalgia for that exalted status, hunger for imperial gloire, is what animates French policy today. France does not expect to rival America but to tame it, restrain it, thwart it and to accept the world's laurels for having led the way.
Not only would this make France leader of the global opposition. It would also restore France to what it sees as its rightful place as leader of Europe. Which is why the great subplot in the Iraq drama is the fate of Tony Blair. Blair represents precisely the alternative vision Churchillian vs. Gaullist of accepting and working with American leadership in the world. Chirac's U.N. stand has caused Blair huge political difficulties at home, where much of his own Labour Party opposes him on Iraq. If Blair can be politically destroyed, France will have demonstrated to the world the price of going with America and defying France. Other players such as the East Europeans, whom Chirac has already rudely threatened for supporting the U.S. will have to think twice when deciding whether to go with America or the French-led opposition.
Dean Acheson famously said, "Britain has lost an empire but has not yet found a role." France too lost an empire but has found its role: giant killer. Remaker of the post-cold war world. Leader of the global anti-American camp.
Heady stuff. And Iraq is the least of it.