Think back to last year's presidential election campaign and the mining of Nicaraguan harbors by the CIA. Can you imagine Walter Mondale or Gary Hart refusing to comment on the grounds that they did not want to tarnish the good name of the United States abroad?
The idea sounds ludicrous. But that is a fair analogy for what has happened in France following allegations that the French secret service had a hand in blowing up the Rainbow Warrior, a ship belonging to the environmental movement, Greenpeace. An election campaign is underway, two French agents are awaiting trial in New Zealand on charges of criminal conspiracy and murder and the three principal leaders of France's right-wing opposition are refusing to criticize the government.
"Right or wrong, it's my country," said former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, explaining why he was remaining silent.
"This is a lamentable affair upon which I shall have no further comment," sniffed former Prime Minister Raymond Barre.
The neo-Gaullist party headed by Jacques Chirac issued a statement saying it "had no intention of lending itself to a domestic political polemic in an area involving the national interest, France's position in the world and its defense."
The "Affaire Greenpeace" -- or rather, as one French editorialist put it sardonically, "the absence of an affaire Greenpeace" -- speaks volumes about the contrasts between political debate in France and in the United States. It also provides insights into the French notion of raison d'etat: the identification of the interests of the nation with those of the state.
There are several political time bombs hidden in the wreckage of the Rainbow Warrior and the legal process in New Zealand that could still go off between now and next march when France elects a new National Assembly. Talk about a coverup has already led to headlines of "Rainbowgate" in the French press. The informed opinion of most French political analysts, however, is that President Francois Mitterrand will emerge unscathed from the scandal.
The worst-case scenario for the government (and even this seems improbable right now) is that the defense minister, Charles Hernu, might eventually be forced to resign. The most favorable outcome for Mitterrand is that, by transforming the issue into a debate about the French presence in the South Pacific, he might even succeed in turning the affair to his advantage by posing as the champion of France's independent nuclear deterrent, the force de frappe. His dramatic visit to the French nuclear testing center at Mururoa Atoll this weekend was praised by right-wing politicians normally quick to criticize everything he does.
Public opinion polls show that most people in France are deeply skeptical about the results of an official inquiry into the Greenpeace affair which formally cleared the government of ordering the sabotage of the Rainbow Warrior. But fewer than one in 12 Frenchmen feel that Mitterrand should resign and only one in four thinks that the head of the secret services, Adm. Pierre Lacoste, should go. One poll showed that 62 percent of those questioned had a "somewhat weak" or "very weak" interest in the story which has dominated the front pages of French newspapers for the past two months.
The notion of raison d'etat -- the idea that the state has the right to resort to any measures to protect its own interests and those of the nation -- is much more developed in France than in the United States. It is after all a French expression. Watergate, in which the president of the world's most powerful country discovered that he too was beneath the law, was never really understood in France.
"You have to remember that even when an overwhelming majority of Americans thought that President Nixon should resign because of Watergate, most Frenchmen still thought he should stay," remarked Jean- Francois Kahn, editor of the weekly L'Evenement du Jeudi, which first accused the French secret services of sinking the Greenpeace boat.
A prominent French sociologist, Alain Touraine, has described the lack of public reaction as perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Greenpeace affair. Writing in Le Monde, he posed the question why France -- "a country of great enthusiasms and outbursts of anger, sensitive to human rights and mistrustful of all authority" -- should appear so unconcerned when its secret services were accused of sinking an ecological protest boat in a friendly country. The answer, he said, lay in the "decomposition" of public opinion and left-wing ideology.
Noting that the ecological and anti-nuclear movements had arrived in France at the same time as neighboring countries, Touraine added: "It was only in France that these sentimnts disintegrated when confronted with the notion, transmitted to society by the state, that the survival of the nation depended on . . . the development of its nuclear industry. For the same reason, France is the only West European country that has not experienced a great debate over nuclear weapons."
The intellectual mood in France has drifted steadily to the right over the past decade as a result of disillionment with Soviet, Chinese and Cuban-style Communism. Many of the student revolutionaries who disputed the role of the state in May 1968, noted Touraine, have now become critical of their own ideas.
The fact that the left is now in power in France has contributed to the lack of political interest in exploiting "Rainbowgate." The Socialists, who have in the past being critical of "dirty tricks" committed by the secret services, do not want to embarrass the government. The right does not want to be seen as unpatriotic. The sharpest criticism has come, predictably, from the Communist Party and France's fledgling ecological movement -- which, however, is regarded as outside the political mainstream.
"There is almost a consensus that the truth not be known. The left wants to protect Hernu and the president. The right wants to protect the army and the secret service," commented Kahn.
Kahn, an experienced political reporter who helped uncover a previous scandal involving the secret services in the mid-'60s, the kidnapping of the Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka, said that there was both a "masochistic" and a "chauvinistic" strain in the French character. In the Greenpeace affair, the "masochistic" chord has been struck by the news media which has virtually accused the secret services of sinking the Rainbow Warrior. Mitterrand, who initially pledged that no effort would be spared to uncover the culprits, is now striking a much more nationalistic note.
The press revelations about the activities of the French secret agents in New Zealand have failed to trigger the kind of political and legal mechanisms associated with Watergate. After an initial burst of excitement, in which some second string opposition politicians came out with almost ritual calls for the resignations of the prime minister and defense minister, right-wing spokesmen have let the matter drop. Their preferred issue is the Pacific island of New Caledonia where separatist Kanaks are pressing for independence from France.
The chauvinistic strain in the French character was reflected in last's weeks protest by France to New Zealand over the conditions in which the two secret agents are being held. Some newspapers and magazines, notably Paris Match, have regaled their readers with harrowing tales about the plight of the agents (who hold the ranks of major and captain in the French army) at the "other end of the world." There have been attempts to mobilize publicopinion on their behalf by forming defense committees as well as calls, mostly in the right-wing press, for France to put New Zealand in its place.
The foreign policy consensus has enabled France to avoid the agonizing debates that have split other west European nations -- notably west Germany -- in the past few years. In that sense, it is a source of strength. The weakness, in Touraine's view at least, is the lack of political and intellectual vitality. In his article in Le Monde, Touraine expressed the concern that this could jeopardize France's chances of modernization and innovation.
"Should we not recognize the existence, inevitable and even desirable, of conflicts between the strategy of the state and the demands of public opinion?" he asked.
Much the same point was made by a reader of Le Monde who pointed out that the quote used by Giscard to justify the notion of raison d'etat was incomplete. The full quote, he noted, was in fact an argument against raison d'etat: "My country, right or wrong. If it is right, keep it right. If it is wrong, make it right."