The causes of the Franco-American conflict and the policy of the French left on the war in Iraq

The preparations for the invasion of Iraq by the United States have provoked a major international crisis. Over the coming months, this crisis - which is yet in its early stages - will have further repercussions throughout the entire world.

The preparations for the invasion of Iraq by the United States have provoked a major international crisis. Over the coming months, a crisis - which is yet in its early stages - will have further repercussions throughout the entire world. It will inevitably lead to a profound change in the psychology of all social classes. When the capitalist class, in its struggle for the control of raw materials, markets and new sources of profit, pass over from the use of their economic power, threats, corruption, blackmail and other "peaceful" methods to those of war, the fiction of "international law" is shattered. By its very nature, war strips away the veil of lies and hypocrisy which are the stock-in-trade of ruling class diplomats, to reveal, in all their implacable brutality, the real mechanisms of the capitalist system, wherein international relations are determined by economic and military power.

The arrogant war mongering of George W. Bush has come up against massive opposition from workers and youth throughout the entire world. The mobilisations against this war have been on a scale never seen since the time of the Vietnam War. Let us remember that the United States lost that war, partly because of the struggle of the Vietnamese people, and partly because of the growing opposition to the war on the part of the American population and on the part of soldiers in the US army. After the first war against Iraq, then the war against Serbia, then the war in Afghanistan, the prospect of being plunged once again into the indescribable horror of another war is bringing about a radical change in the thinking of workers and youth, who are waking up to the deep-rooted economic, social and political instability which characterises our epoch, and who are beginning to draw revolutionary conclusions from this.

Tragically, in France and internationally, these new and testing events, like previous ones, find the left parties and the trade union movement in general to be totally unprepared to face up to them. These organisations are still dominated by elements that are completely incapable of opposing the war in a socialist and internationalist manner, when they are not simply the conscious tools of their "own" imperialism. In France, where - for the moment - Jacques Chirac and the reactionary government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin are involved in a showdown with the American administration, the position adopted by the leaders of the socialist and communist parties is totally inadmissible from the standpoint of socialist internationalism. This war opens up an immense opportunity for the development of a mass movement against the capitalist class, in France as elsewhere. However, unless it is corrected in time, the profoundly erroneous position of the left parties and the unions will lead to letting yet another occasion to deal a decisive blow against capitalism pass by.

In our article The war aims of the great powers in the Middle East and the consequences of the coming invasion of Iraq, we explained the real objectives of US imperialism in the coming war. Given the world economic crisis of capitalism, the growing instability of the Middle East in general, and of Saudi Arabia in particular - where the regime could collapse in the near future - it is absolutely vital for American imperialism to gain control of another major source of oil in the region, which contains 66% of world reserves. After Saudi Arabia, Iraq is the country that has the biggest reserves, estimated at 112 billion barrels. That is why the United States government can no longer be satisfied with inflicted famine and death on the Iraqi people by means of the embargo, and has now opted for war. Military and strategic considerations of the highest importance also enter into the calculations of the US administration. The military occupation of Iraq would offer the USA an operational base against any of the surrounding countries, and especially against Saudi Arabia, in the event that a change in regime there rendered necessary the seizure of the areas containing the Saudi oilwells and refineries.

These plans infringe directly upon the interests of French imperialism, which is also interested in Iraqi oil reserves, but whose economic and military power is very much smaller than that of the American colossus. At the root of the conflict between Chirac and the White House is the chronic decline of France as an imperialist power. Particularly in the course of the last 50 years, France has been constantly retreating in the world arena before the advance of the United States, on the one hand, and on the other, of what is by far the most powerful European power, Germany. In South-east Asia, French imperialism lost its positions to the USA. It is presently losing ground in eastern and central Africa. Even in Morocco and in Algeria, France is being beaten back by the encroachment of German and American companies. In Sudan, where France supported and armed the fundamentalist regime in Khartoum against the southern armies backed by the USA, the same regime is now increasingly moving over towards US foreign policy options, cutting out France in the process. In the Middle East, France has had to surrender the greater part of its markets and influence to the domination of the United States. Finally, the recent crisis in the Ivory Coast will mean, in the long run, a weakening of French imperialism there, which will open the way for an extension of US interests.

Added to this retreat of French capitalism on the world stage, there has been a corresponding weakening of France as a military power. The war in Afghanistan amply demonstrated the shortcomings of France's military capability in large-scale operations. Without any long-range missiles system worthy of the name, and lacking the ground troops and combat vehicles needed for major land-based offensives, the participation of France in the war against the Talibans only deserves a footnote in the annals of military history. This weakness means that France cannot push its claims in relation to the spoils of war in the event of a victory alongside the USA. The 1991 war took place to the detriment of the interests of French capitalism. Firstly, French imperialism was on very good terms with the Iraqi dictatorship, supplying arms to it during the war against Iran in the 1980's, and offering its technology and know-how to Saddam Hussein in the repression he directed against the people of Iraq. French secret service agencies regularly supplied information on left-wing activists to Saddam Hussein, which amounted to signing their death warrant. The imposition of the embargo meant the loss of the fruits of this criminal collaboration. Of the contracts that went to the victors of the 1991 war, France had to content itself with just 2% of the market. As if to emphasise the lack of consideration on the part of the USA for the military involvement of France in the war, the 2% in question mainly involved mine removal operations. Such marks of esteem are not so easily forgotten!

Throughout the 1990's, under both right and left governments, French imperialism tried to make up for its waning international influence by nurturing relations with those states which were in conflict with the USA, notably Iran, Iraq, and Libya. Oil companies and industrial enterprises signed a whole series of agreements with these countries, which would come into effect once the embargos imposed on these countries by the United Nations were lifted. In the case of Iraq, France took advantage of the removal of competition from US companies and signed major contracts for the exploitation of Iraqi oil reserves. In exchange, France was to use its influence - which proved to be inadequate - to get the embargo lifted. The switch in US policy, from the embargo to the invasion and military occupation of Iraq, has in effect meant the cancelling of all these contracts. That is the main conflict of interests between Paris and Washington. Nevertheless, there are others.

The economic and social situation is a weighty element in the equation of the present conflict. The ruling classes in France and in Germany are deeply worried about the economic, social and political repercussions of this war, both in Europe and in the Middle East. Economic growth in Germany and in France is sufficiently close to 0% for the war to bring about an absolute fall in their GDP. Bush and his advisors are also concerned about the international repercussions of the war, but, as we have seen, the economic and military strategic advantages of the war, from the point of view of US imperialism, are important enough to relegate these considerations to a secondary plane. It would have been the same for French imperialism, if the US administration had been more generous in their proposals relating to the sharing out of the spoils. However, in the negotiations between Paris and Washington over the question of access to Iraqi oil reserves, the US administration showed little very sympathy for the claims made by France.

On the French side, if they were unable to enter the war as a major player in the field of military operations, Chirac and Raffarin were unwilling to pay the share of the financial burden of the war which the US government was asking them for. The invitation to participate in this murderous orgy is not free of charge. The United States, whose balance of payments deficit reached 496 billion dollars in 2002, which is an increase of 98 billion in relation to 2001, is attempting to impose the greater part of the cost of the war on its allies. In the event of a short war, wherein the six divisions of the Republican Guard defending Baghdad will put up no resistance to speak of, and where the foreign armies occupy the city without too much difficulty - none of which can be guaranteed in advance - the US government estimates the cost of the war to be around 60 billion dollars. In the event of a prolonged war, lasting between two or three months, this figure could increase to 200 billion dollars, before any account is taken of the cost of dealing with the social and political upheavals which the conflict is likely to cause in neighbouring countries.

Chirac is also worried about the situation in the Ivory Coast, where the interests of French imperialism are directly threatened. His strategy aiming to avoid, or at least to delay, the war in Iraq, is intended to leave his hands free for a larger scale military intervention in the Ivory Coast. As for the professed "pacifism" of Raffarin during his trip to India - where the question of arms sales was of course on the agenda - it was inspired by the need to pursue his war against workers, youth, unemployed, and pensioners in France: he would have even greater difficulty in carrying out cuts in public expenditure in France if he has to justify the expense of an unpopular war against Iraq.

Chirac does not exclude the participation of the armed forces in the carnage now being prepared, but would prefer that the war take place later, and hopes, in the interval, to be able to force concessions from the USA in terms of oil and construction contracts. Be that as it may, the Franco-American conflict is clearly a clash between two rival imperialisms, the one just as rapacious and reactionary as the other, both of them pursuing essentially the same objectives. It is impossible to say, at this stage, how far Chirac will go in his conflict with Washington. The use of the veto in the UN cannot be completely excluded, although this is unlikely. In any case, the question of the veto is posed within the framework of a struggle for the defence of French imperialist interests against those of American imperialism. Their respective positions could be resumed in the following way: the United States wants to invade and occupy Iraq, impose a puppet regime, and gain access to the oil reserves, whereas France wants the embargo lifted, to resume collaboration with the Iraqi dictatorship, and gain access to the oil reserves for itself. From a socialist and internationalist point of view, it is totally inadmissible to give any support to either one of these two camps. The duty of the workers' parties and the trade union movement is to oppose the war in such a way as to draw a clear line between the interests of the working class and the imperialist interests defended by Chirac and the UMP government.

The right wing of the Socialist Party (PS), represented by Hollande, Strauss-Kahn, Fabius and company, supported the 1991 war against Iraq. These peace-lovers then upheld the embargo against Iraq, which has led to the death of over one million Iraqi citizens, including over 500,000 children under 5 years old, according to figures supplied by UNICEF. Then they supported the bombing and military occupation of former Yugoslavia, then the war in Afghanistan. If they now oppose the war being prepared against Iraq, it is only because, under present conditions, they consider, together with a considerable section of the French ruling class, that it is not in the interests of French imperialism. Another factor is that after having led the Socialist Party to a disastrous defeat in the 2002 elections, the right wing bureaucracy has been thrown onto the defensive within the party, and is trying to erase the memory of the pro-capitalist policies of the Jospin government, so that Strauss-Kahn and Hollande even oppose privatisation these days, whereas they wholeheartedly approved privatisations worth 31 billion euros between 1997 and 2002! To give open support to a new war in Iraq would put these people in an even more difficult position within the party. In effect, the policy of the socialist leadership towards the war is the same as that of Chirac, except that they call directly for the use of the UN veto "to prevent this war". In fact, a veto by France will not prevent the war, which will take place with or without the participation of France.

The policy of the Communist party (PCF) leadership is almost identical to that of the socialist right-wing. The PCF leaders also supported the war in former Yugoslavia and the war in Afghanistan. Under the impact of the devastating election defeats suffered by the PCF in 2002, the general secretary, Marie-Georges Buffet seemed at least vaguely to have understood that the reason for the defeats was the distancing of the party from what she called "the sources of communism". However, these declarations have not been followed through. Whereas the coming war offers a perfect opportunity for the PCF leadership to distinguish itself from the right-wing of the Socialist Party and to offer a serious fighting alternative to the war, it has found nothing better to do than imploring Jacques Chirac to do whatever he can to avoid it! To this end, the PCF leaders have printed tens of thousands of copies of a very polite letter to the main representative of French capitalism, for which party activists are invited to collect signatures from members of the public!

A really communist policy would boldly unmask Chirac and his diplomatic intrigues, would explain the reactionary character of the UN - that "robbers lair" as Lenin said in reference to the League of Nations - and mobilise the youth and the workers for concrete action against the preparations for war. The party could take up the example of the Scottish railwaymen who refused to transport military equipment. It should appeal to the workers in the ports to block all access to port facilities for warships and refuse to load or unload supply ships. Unfortunately, in place of a policy based on class action against the war, the party leadership looks pathetically towards the chief representative of the capitalist parties, sliding into a position that has a nationalist ring about it. For example, at the time of the gigantic demonstrations against the war on February 15 Marie-Georges Buffet declared to the press that "France, with the President of the Republic, has adopted a courageous attitude. We hope that France, which is united on this matter, will do everything in its power to stop the spiral of war, and if the question is posed, that she should use her right of veto on the Security Council of the UN."

Chirac finds himself in a difficult position. As we have explained, the prospects for French capitalism in Iraq will be damaged in the event of a US-led military victory. But if the war takes place without France, French capitalism will be almost completely shut out of the future markets. This explains the vacillation in the attitude of Chirac and the right-wing parties in France, who want to leave open the possibility of joining the invasion force. The opening of hostilities in spite of the opposition of Chirac would be a public demonstration of the weakness of French imperialism, which the ruling class would rather not have to deal with. Chirac attempted, at the beginning of the year, to orientate his policy in the direction of alignment with the USA, and it is not excluded that he could repeat the exercise over the next few weeks. In the meantime, Bush and Powell would like France to participate in the war, both militarily and financially, but this participation is not indispensable to them. They will not wait much longer, and if Chirac continues to drag his feet, they will do without him. In all probability, the invasion will be launched in March.

The political task of the French left is not to support Chirac in his attempt to defend the position of French imperialism against its powerful US rival, but to combat all imperialist countries, starting with French imperialism. As the revolutionary and collaborator of Rosa Luxemburg put it: "In imperialist wars, the main enemy for a communist is in his own country". The texts produced by the Socialist Party and the Communist party are sprinkled with references to "the imperialist logic of the US administration", but make no mention of the equally imperialist character of the government policy in France.

Our opposition to the war is totally irreconcilable with that of Chirac. The policy of the present leaders of the PS and the PCF, which, rather than presenting an independent program against the war, amounts to holding on to the coat-tails of French imperialist diplomacy, is but another demonstration of their complete political bankruptcy. A socialist or communist party worthy of the name should tirelessly denounce the real aims pursued by the capitalist class and its political representatives, and strive by all possible means to mobilise the youth and the workers around a program of action, using strikes and trade union embargos directed against the preparations for war. At the same time, it should link this struggle to the necessity of throwing out the Chirac-Raffarin government and breaking the power of the capitalists by means of the nationalisation of the banks and big business interests under workers’ control and management.

One can be opposed to this war for all sorts of reasons. Chirac is opposed to it - for the moment - in the hope of defending the interests of French capitalism. The arms manufacturers in France were opposed to the war in 1991, because Saddam Hussein was one of their best clients. But a socialist - or communist - opposition to the war must attack the foundations of the capitalist system which is at the root of imperialist wars, and work for the creation of an international federation of socialist states, in which the enormous economic and cultural resources of all countries can be brought together for the benefit of mankind, and in which wars and all the other scourges of capitalism can be ended once and for all.