So, we will not drink French wine, visit the Louvre or tour the Normandy battlefields until the French have learned their lesson. And what is this lesson? It's that France must always be ready to be a party to unilateral, American decisions and actions that it doesn't think will work.
What is more, the French must learn to follow the lead of an American administration at whose hands the French have several times already been badly burned. That is really what the current crisis in Franco- American relations is about. The fine points of counterterrorist tactics are a part of it. A larger part goes to the heart of how the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) works -- and doesn't work.
NATO has worked when it has stuck strictly to its purpose of defending Europe. The stress cracks develop when one or another partner (usually, but not always, an overbearing United States) goes off in pursuit of its own interests, expecting its NATO partners to fall into line, despite their own national interests and domestic imperatives. Thus, the British drawdown on their naval forces committed to NATO's defense to recapture the Falkland Islands at the expense of U.S. relations with Latin America. The Italians get in the way of American airborne arrest of the Achille Lauro hijackers. European peace movements get in the way of deployment of American nuclear missiles. Europeans get in the way of America's Central American policy. And now, the French get in the way of the shortest, safest course for British- based American bombers en route to Libya.
Whereupon, the telephone rings off the hook at the French Embassy. Letters and telegrams pile up; senators boast of the dressing down they have given to the French ambassador.
"Unconscionable," says House Speaker Tip O'Neill. His conscience is apparently unbothered by the millions of dollars his fellow Irish-Americans donate to the cause of IRA terrorists who almost blew away the top leadership of the British government at a conservative party conference.
Columnist William F. Buckley Jr. finds a "mystery" in the whole French performance. Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, he reckons, must have overruled the new Gaullist Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. It is all the more reprehensible to Buckley since, by his account, the United States had just risked its own intelligence sources by tipping off the French to a Qaddafi terrorist plot to attack the American consulate in Paris.
"What his motives were," says Buckley of Mitterrand, "we simply cannot know." But, of course, we can know. All you have to do is ask, and it helps to know what youre talking about. In reality, French intelligence tipped us off to the Libyan plot, as President Reagan graciously acknowledged in his TV announcement of the Libyan raid. Chirac and Mitterrand worked together on the French communique giving not "motives" but the French judgment that retaliatory air strikes "perpetuate a cycle of violence" to no conclusive purpose.
Sure, the French are prickly about their national independence, to a fault. Their institutional distancing from NATO speaks to that. The sanctity of French airspace has always been a point of pride. And it is impolitic for them to make the argument, but France is home to 2 million citizens of Arab origin, which introduces a vulnerability to unrest and violence that the United States does not share.
Even so, the French have not flinched from facing up to Qaddafi. While the Reagan administration warns us about Libyan expansionism, the French confront it at the cost of some casualties with troops and air power on the spot as a deterrent. The French recently responded to a Qaddafi threat to Tunisia by moving in with naval units and promising Tunisia their support.
In Lebanon the French enlisted in a multinational force at American urging, and carried out alone what was to have been a joint U.S.-French air attack on terrorist bases in the Bekaa Valley, after the United States begged off. Suddenly, the French looked up to discover that the American Marines had pulled out, without prior notice.
Mitterrand has another sour memory. When we dropped off Haiti's despicable dictator "Baby Doc" Duvalier in the French town of Tailloire, it was understood that we would come back for him after arranging for some other country to take him in. Nobody would. We never did come back, and Duvalier has settled down in the south of France to Mitterrand's political embarrassment.
If anybody is looking for an explanation, as distinct from a motive, for the French refusal to be a coconspirator in the Libyan air raid, it can be found in large part in a record of French enlistment in joint undertakings with the Reagan administration only to discover, Zut Alors, the Americans, they are not serious.