Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews
By David Pryce-Jones (Encounter Books 171pp £20.99)
As I write, it is exactly a year since the desolate banlieues of France erupted in an orgy of violence, on a scale which had not been seen for generations. At the time, these riots were blamed on social exclusion. Since then, it has become clear that the rioters are not just 'immigrants' or 'youths', but are first and foremost Muslims. When they set light to a car, their cry is often: 'Allahu akhbar!' ('Allah is great!')
The violence, moreover, is endemic and ubiquitous. In 2005, there were 110,000 incidents of urban violence, including 45,000 vehicles burnt out. This year, there has been an average of over 100 incidents a day. Since the riots supposedly subsided last January, some 3,000 police officers are reported to have been injured. France is quite deliberately being made ungovernable.
This 'French intifada' was merely the culmination of a process that has turned many suburbs into no-go areas for the police and increasingly for non-Muslims too. In particular, the Islamist rabble-rousers who are behind the insurgency have incited their followers to attack Jews, who are now outnumbered by Muslims in France by at least ten to one.
How has it come to this? In this devastating indictment, the cri de coeur of an Englishman who loves France but is exasperated by the French, the background to this breakdown of civil society gradually emerges. David Pryce-Jones has discovered the explanation in the archives of the French foreign ministry, known after its imposing headquarters, the Quai d'Orsay. The corps diplomatique who have run this institution like a private club - known to initiates simply as 'la carrière' - are responsible not only for the decline of French prestige abroad, but also for creating the conditions for the unfolding catastrophe at home.
Like so many misfortunes, this one has its origins in the megalomania of the Bonaparte clan. For more than two centuries, since Napoleon's expedition to Egypt, French diplomacy has been gripped by a delusion of grandeur: the idea of France as une puissance musulmane, 'a Muslim power' - a phrase that has a new and sinister echo now.
French diplomats, determined to outdo their British and German rivals in great-power politics, were also convinced that France had a special mission civilisatrice in the Islamic world. Yet their sentimental orientalism was entirely compatible with an institutional anti-Semitism that is documented in shocking detail by Pryce-Jones. The rise of Zionism transformed this anti-Semitism from a mere prejudice, odious perhaps but peripheral to foreign policy, into a distorting mirror which motivated and reinforced the fatal misjudgements that have led France to its present predicament.
The French had pretensions to be the protecting power for all Catholics in the Middle East, and they saw Zionism as a competitor - one, moreover, that was associated in their eyes first with German and then with British interests. In response to what it saw as an impudent demand for a Jewish homeland, the Quai d'Orsay 'effectively launched the Arab nationalist movement' on the eve of the First World War.
Some of this book makes uncomfortable reading for Catholics, because several of the most outré orientalists who have controlled French policy in the last century turn out to have been Tartuffes of the worst kind. Pryce-Jones devotes a whole chapter to the curious case of Louis Massignon, who was the Arabist guru of the Quai d'Orsay both before and after World War II. Massignon's faith was a bizarre confection of Catholic and Islamic mysticism, and he ended up as a Melkite priest. Though he was married, it was the homoerotic attractions of Arab boys that evidently drew him to the East. He enjoyed cloak-and-dagger espionage, alternating between the robe and turban of an Egyptian imam and the habit of a Franciscan. He liked Lawrence of Arabia - as Pryce-Jones comments, 'they were two of a kind' - but enjoyed correcting the Englishman's Arabic grammar.
Massignon's influence was similarly pernicious. Put in charge of French propaganda to the Muslim world, he dedicated himself to building a Franco-Islamic 'bloc' or 'entente' and worked hard to scupper the Zionist project. His conversation and writings are riddled with rage against 'the ignominy of the Jews', and he even had the temerity to tell Martin Buber that Israel must stop 'Atlantic speculators' from exploiting Arab oil. Though he died in 1963, Massignon anticipated much of the contemporary French critique of the Zionist-Anglo-Saxon alliance.
Other pre-war intellectuals played an equally nefarious role in this episode of the betrayal of French rationalism - what Julien Benda called 'la trahison des clercs'. Pryce-Jones singles out Paul Morand, Jean Giraudoux and Paul Claudel: all writers, all senior officials at the Quai d'Orsay, all virulent anti-Semites. It is hard not to see the present prime minister and littérateur, Dominique de Villepin, as their spiritual descendant, when he describes Israel as 'a parenthesis in history'.
The one brief phase of rapprochement between post-war France and Israel, during the mid-1950s, took place despite the Quai d'Orsay, which was kept in the dark about defence and nuclear co-operation. The Suez operation was doomed partly because the ministry had to be kept out of the loop. Even the then foreign minister, Christian Pineau, had to tell colleagues: 'Above all, not a word to the Quai d'Orsay!'
Under General de Gaulle, France reverted to its traditional 'Muslim policy' and imposed an arms embargo on Israel. After the Six Day War in 1967, de Gaulle set the tone for future French statesmen by calling the Jews 'an elite people, self-assured and domineering' with 'a burning ambition for conquest'. He ignored Raymond Aron, who warned that de Gaulle had opened 'a new era in ... anti-Semitic history', and instead echoed the old Quai d'Orsay motto of France as a 'Muslim power'.
Thereafter, Israel looked to America, while France recklessly encouraged a succession of Muslim leaders who proved to be implacably hostile to the West, from Gaddafi to Saddam Hussein. It was the French who turned Yasser Arafat into a figure on the world stage and tolerated his terrorists in their midst. And it was the French who enabled Ayatollah Khomeini to launch his Islamic revolution from a suburb of Paris.
The cynicism, corruption and arrogance of all four presidents since de Gaulle - Pompidou, Giscard, Mitterrand and Chirac - have reinforced the déformation professionnelle of the Quai d'Orsay. Far from buying France influence in the Muslim world, the 'Arab policy' has merely imported the conflicts of the Middle East onto the streets of Paris.
Only now, when the country is in the grip of an Islamist jihad, has Chirac acknowledged that anti-Semitism - the existence of which in France he had long denied - is so serious that 'an attack against a French Jew is an attack against France'. It is David Pryce-Jones's great merit to have documented the conflict between this affirmation of the rights of French Jews at home and their denial abroad by French foreign policy. Whether the French public will heed this English indictment of their political class is more than doubtful, but Betrayal should resonate among those for whom Zola is still not a footballer but the author of J'accuse.