Richard Nixon's choice of France as the place to start his comeback as a public figure had a compelling logic. France has long been the major European country that seems to like Nixon the most and to understand Watergate the least.
It was a Frenchman who said that "happy nations have no history." The French have a lot of history, and it has made them cynical about politicians and constitutions and public morality. Except for a few rare periods of ssacred union against outsiders, French leaders have traditionally been avengers representing one part of the population against the real or imagined wrongs inflicted by another part. In an unusual style for an American leader, Nixon seems also to have nurtured the image of the avenging angel.
So, it was no surprise when better than 80 percent of the thousands of French callers said favorable things about Nixon's presidency during a recent three-hour television program.
It was not the first time the French had had that reaction. Back in 1974, soon after Nixon quit the presidency under fire, the same program, "Screen Dossiers," the most popular show on French TV, got a similar avalanche of comments favorable to Nixon during a newsmen's panel discussion about Watergate.
That time, the talk part of the show was preceded by an anti-Nixon film called "Milhous." This time, "Dossiers" did its own documentary on Nixon's career. [See For the Record on the opposite page.] It was highly favorable, saying that Watergate was the work of a liberal press that had always been hostile to Nixon and not even mentioning that the bulk of his closest associates served prison terms for their parts in Watergate.
The favorable audience response to Nixon was the same in 1974 and in 1978. It did not matter whether the show was introduced by an anti-Nixon or a pro-Nixon film.
On the 1974 show, the late Raymond Cartier, the editor of Paris-Match, the French Life Magazine, incensed his fellow panelists by saying that Nixon was forced out in a Zionist plot. Then as now, that magazine tends to reflect what is known as La France Profonde, the French equivalent of The Silent Majority. Just recently, the magazine ran a lengthy article explaining that Spain's Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who came to power backed by the troops of Hitler and Mussolini, has been calumnied by those who insist on calling him a fascist. He was just a Catholic dictator, the mass-circulation French magazine said.
Some of the callers this time also suggested that Nixon fell because of a conspiracy. But even the former president rejected that explanation, saying that he was ultimately responsible for his own downfall and that "it would be very self-serving" for him to say he was the victim of a plot. Some of his best friends are eastern liberals, Nixon added.
The ins and outs of Watergate, especially its legal aspects, have never been understood by a French public that is used to the state's bending the laws to suit its needs. None of France's many constitutions has ever been regarded as sacred.
For the French, Watergate was merely a garden-variety electronic-bugging incident. They cannot understand all the fuss since all governments do it, don't they?
When Socialist leader Francois Mitterand was asked what he would like to ask Nixon on "Dossiers," he replied that he would like to know if the expresident thought his predecessors in the White House had also bugged their adversaries. In the context, it seemed very clear what the man who was 11 times a French cabinet minister expected Nixon to answer.
Another Frenchman, a political veteran who was long in the management of French radio and TV, talked privately about a government operative assigned to place bugs on the labor-union representatives at French state radio headquarters. One day, when he went to the basement to check the functioning of his bugs, the operative crossed the path of a union man who, it turned out, had just bugged the telephone line of the radio's director. The two greeted each other and went their separate ways, leaving each other's bugs in place.
There has been no public outcry over the recent decision of a French court to throw out, on a string of a French court to throw out, on a string of extremely specious technicalities, the case of the Canard Enchaine, the Paris political satire journal, against a group of policemen caught disguised as workmen while installing bugs on the premises of the Canard. Just as cynically as any other Frenchman, Canard editor Claude Angeli sighed, "What do you expect? It's a little Watergate. But, then we're just a small country."
The British public proved again, during Nixon's appearance at Oxford, after he'd been to Paris, that they have a better grasp of what Watergate was about. There are the simple explanations of the difference: British TV showed hours of the Senate Watergate hearings, but French TV showed little because of the language problem and had great difficulty explaining so basic an Anglo-Saxon legal notion as a subpoena. There is also the traditional British respect for law and the view that the state should serve the citizen, rather than the other way around, as in France.
But Olivier Todd, a noted Anglo-French newsman who was on the original "Dossiers" panel on Watergate, thinks that, subconsciously, the anti-Americanism of a great part of the French public may also have been at work. The French know very well that Americans rather generally rejected Nixon; all the more reason, then, to lionize him.
President Charles de Gaulle went out of his way in the 1960s to receive a Nixon who was apparently washed up politically.What other reason could he have had, asks Todd, than to annoy the Democratic administration in Washington?
"For us to tell the Americans now that they hounded their best president from office is an opportunity to nag America once more," said Todd.
Gaullists and Communists, at either end of the French political spectrum, together represent a good half of the French electorate. Both parties are ideologically hostile to America, without even counting that other, anti-libertarian France, La France Profonde, which still has a certain idea of America that is not at all the idea that most Americans themselves have.