Commentary Magazine


Topic: France

The Right Response to an Iranian Nuclear Freeze

It is widely rumored that French objections prevented agreement on what would have been a bad deal with Iran at the Geneva talks this weekend. If so, I join my colleagues who have already written on the subject in a heart-felt Vive la France!

But the negotiations, while interrupted, have not ended. They are due to resume November 20. The question is what offer the P5+1 (i.e., the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) will put on the table next time.

This time around, the U.S. was apparently dangling the carrot of giving the mullahs access to tens of billions of dollars in Iranian funds frozen in Western banks and lifting some existing sanctions. Iran, its economy rapidly deteriorating, desperately needs access to those reserves. In return, however, Iran was apparently not willing to give up its supposed “right” to enrich uranium–i.e., its ability to maintain breakout capacity to make a nuclear weapon on short notice. Nor, if the leaks are to be believed, was Iran willing to stop construction on a new plutonium heavy-water reactor at Arak, which gives it another path to the bomb.

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It is widely rumored that French objections prevented agreement on what would have been a bad deal with Iran at the Geneva talks this weekend. If so, I join my colleagues who have already written on the subject in a heart-felt Vive la France!

But the negotiations, while interrupted, have not ended. They are due to resume November 20. The question is what offer the P5+1 (i.e., the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany) will put on the table next time.

This time around, the U.S. was apparently dangling the carrot of giving the mullahs access to tens of billions of dollars in Iranian funds frozen in Western banks and lifting some existing sanctions. Iran, its economy rapidly deteriorating, desperately needs access to those reserves. In return, however, Iran was apparently not willing to give up its supposed “right” to enrich uranium–i.e., its ability to maintain breakout capacity to make a nuclear weapon on short notice. Nor, if the leaks are to be believed, was Iran willing to stop construction on a new plutonium heavy-water reactor at Arak, which gives it another path to the bomb.

The fact that Iran was not willing to take what the French foreign minister called a “sucker’s deal” shows just how committed it is to the nuclear program and how hard it will be to achieve meaningful results in these talks.

The debate now in Washington is what to do about further sanctions. Many voices in and out of Congress argue for enacting even tougher sanctions on Iranian finances that would effectively collapse the value of Iran’s currency. That certainly makes more sense than prematurely lifting existing sanctions. But Washington doesn’t have to do either.

If Iran is serious about a nuclear freeze, then the appropriate response is not a dismantlement of sanctions–that should only occur if Iran renounces its “right” of enrichment and begins to dismantle its nuclear program. The appropriate response to Iran verifiably stopping work on building a nuclear weapon should be the U.S. and its allies stopping to work on enacting further sanctions.

The threat of more sanctions being enacted by Congress should serve as an effective cudgel to win minimal concessions from the Iranians, assuming they are serious about getting a deal. And delaying the enactment of these additional sanctions costs little–whereas giving Iran access to frozen assets and partially lifting existing sanctions is a gift of inestimable valuable to the Islamic Republic. Such a concession, which would be hard to reverse, should be traded only for something more substantial than a temporary pause in the Iranian nuclear program.

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Rouhani’s Reign of Terror

Diplomats have now left Geneva with a nuclear deal with Iran tantalizingly close, but uncompleted. Today, Le Monde outlined the French government’s reasons for refusing to sign onto the deal:

For the 5+1 group as a whole, “there are two or three points that are still causing difficulties with the Iranians, and I hope that they will be surmounted,” Laurent Fabius added.  “If we don’t reach an agreement, that will cause a major problem in a few months’ time….” France’s part in the failure of the negotiations has been criticized by several observers, who stress the French foreign minister’s omnipresence and tendency to warn against a cut price agreement.  According to Paris, clarifications are necessary on three main points –- the Arak power plant, the future of stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium, and the enrichment issue in general.

The current diplomatic process with Iran dates back 20 years when German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel proposed “a critical dialogue”–dialogue because that’s the lifeblood of diplomacy, and “critical” because Kinkel promised that the dialogue would tackle not only diplomatic issues relating to Iran’s external behavior but also tough issues such as Iran’s atrocious human-rights abuses.

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Diplomats have now left Geneva with a nuclear deal with Iran tantalizingly close, but uncompleted. Today, Le Monde outlined the French government’s reasons for refusing to sign onto the deal:

For the 5+1 group as a whole, “there are two or three points that are still causing difficulties with the Iranians, and I hope that they will be surmounted,” Laurent Fabius added.  “If we don’t reach an agreement, that will cause a major problem in a few months’ time….” France’s part in the failure of the negotiations has been criticized by several observers, who stress the French foreign minister’s omnipresence and tendency to warn against a cut price agreement.  According to Paris, clarifications are necessary on three main points –- the Arak power plant, the future of stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium, and the enrichment issue in general.

The current diplomatic process with Iran dates back 20 years when German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel proposed “a critical dialogue”–dialogue because that’s the lifeblood of diplomacy, and “critical” because Kinkel promised that the dialogue would tackle not only diplomatic issues relating to Iran’s external behavior but also tough issues such as Iran’s atrocious human-rights abuses.

There is a consistent pattern—certainly true under Iran’s former “reformist” president Mohammad Khatami—that as Iranian officials launch a charm offensive toward the West, they simultaneously crack down at home in order to make clear to the public that under no circumstances should the Iranian people believe that the Iranian leadership was abandoning their commitment to revolutionary values. Usually, those living in the periphery of the state suffer worse, if only because Iranian officials recognize that outside journalists do not cover those areas.

That appears to be what is occurring now. According to a Reuters report based on a conversation with Abdul Rahman Haji Ahmadi, the exiled leader of Iran’s most prominent ethnic Kurdish party:

“Obviously he has played very well so far, managing to escape from some crises as well as deceiving some of the Iranian peoples,” Haji-Ahmadi said, but this would end if he fell short of election pledges in a country hungry for change… Rouhani had released political prisoners, but none were of non-Persian ethnicity, he said. He highlighted the killings of 52 Iranian dissidents in a camp in eastern Iraq in September, which he said was neglected abroad. The dissidents belonged to the Mujahadin-e-Khalq (MEK), which wants Iran’s clerical leaders overthrown. They are no longer welcome in Iraq under the Tehran-aligned, Shi’ite Muslim-led government. Haji-Ahmadi also pointed to Iran’s execution of 16 people in a day last month, most of them Baluchi, Sunni Muslims who lived near the Pakistan border, as well as two PJAK members.

The United Nations’s special rapporteur has also said that the human rights situation has not improved under Rouhani:

“The human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to warrant serious concern, with no sign of improvement,” said Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran. Among other things, Dr. Shaheed expressed concern over Iran’s high level of executions, continuing discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, poor prison conditions, and limits on freedom of expression and association. He also said that religious minorities in Iran, including Baha’is, Christians, Sunni Muslims, and others, “are increasingly subjected to various forms of legal discrimination, including in employment and education, and often face arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment.”

The Geneva talks did not result in an agreement largely because of French objections. How sad it was that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were willing to sign off on an agreement that not only would do nothing to constrain Iran’s production of plutonium at Arak, but also would make no demands that Iran curb its imprisonment and executions of religious and ethnic minorities. At the same time, all those so willing to believe that Rouhani has brought change should simply take a look at his behavior inside Iran.

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Iran, France, and Memories of 1967

Like Jonathan, I breathed a sigh of gratitude to France this weekend for thwarting–at least for now–a horrendous deal that would have granted Iran significant and probably irreversible sanctions relief while letting it continue making rapid progress toward a nuclear bomb. But contrary to the snide Western diplomat who accused Laurent Fabius of making trouble just to achieve “relevance,” I can think of two substantive reasons for the French foreign minister’s strong stance. One is that France has consistently taken a tougher line against Iran’s nuclear program than the Obama administration has. But another may stem from historical memory–and the clue is Fabius’s statement that “The security concerns of Israel and all the countries of the region have to be taken into account.”

At first glance, this is astounding. If any party to the talks were going to spare a thought for Israel’s concerns, one would expect it to be the U.S., or even Germany: Both are closer Israeli allies than France, which usually leads the anti-Israel camp. But France attaches great importance to averting Israeli military action against Iran; that’s precisely why it pushed for a European oil embargo on Iran (“We must do everything possible to avoid an Israeli attack on Iran, even if it means a rise in the price of oil and gasoline”). And France has a very specific historical reason for doubting the widespread view that Israel wouldn’t dare attack Iran in defiance of its major patron: It’s called the Six-Day War.

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Like Jonathan, I breathed a sigh of gratitude to France this weekend for thwarting–at least for now–a horrendous deal that would have granted Iran significant and probably irreversible sanctions relief while letting it continue making rapid progress toward a nuclear bomb. But contrary to the snide Western diplomat who accused Laurent Fabius of making trouble just to achieve “relevance,” I can think of two substantive reasons for the French foreign minister’s strong stance. One is that France has consistently taken a tougher line against Iran’s nuclear program than the Obama administration has. But another may stem from historical memory–and the clue is Fabius’s statement that “The security concerns of Israel and all the countries of the region have to be taken into account.”

At first glance, this is astounding. If any party to the talks were going to spare a thought for Israel’s concerns, one would expect it to be the U.S., or even Germany: Both are closer Israeli allies than France, which usually leads the anti-Israel camp. But France attaches great importance to averting Israeli military action against Iran; that’s precisely why it pushed for a European oil embargo on Iran (“We must do everything possible to avoid an Israeli attack on Iran, even if it means a rise in the price of oil and gasoline”). And France has a very specific historical reason for doubting the widespread view that Israel wouldn’t dare attack Iran in defiance of its major patron: It’s called the Six-Day War.

Though few people remember nowadays, in 1967, Paris occupied much the same position that Washington occupies now with respect to Israel: Not only was France Israel’s chief arms supplier and Security Council patron, but it was the only country willing to supply Israel with essential equipment such as fighter jets. Israel’s air force fought the Six-Day War with French Mirages; only the following year, in 1968, did America for the first time agree to sell it Phantom jets.

Consequently, Charles de Gaulle had every reason to think that when he spoke, Israel would listen. And the French president’s message in 1967 was unequivocal: Under no circumstances must Israel launch a preemptive strike; if it did, it could kiss French patronage goodbye. Israel heard the message loud and clear–and preempted anyway. Facing what it deemed an existential threat, it decided that even the loss of its sole military supplier was the lesser evil.

France knows that today, Israel deems Iran’s nuclear program an existential threat. France also knows that Israel would probably risk less by defying the Obama administration than it did by defying France in 1967: De Gaulle severed the military relationship completely, refusing even to deliver planes and gunboats Israel had already paid for, at a time when Israel had no assurance that Washington would fill the gap; today, given Israel’s strong support in Congress, a similarly total American arms embargo seems unlikely. As a result, France may understand what Washington seems not to: that utterly disregarding Israel’s concerns about Iran could push it to preempt despite its patron’s objections, just as it did in 1967.

This also explains why France was particularly opposed to a provision allowing Iran to continue building its heavy-water reactor in Arak. Once the reactor is finished and ready to go online, Iran could turn the switch before an attack could be mounted, so Israel is unlikely to wait until it gets to that point. Thus if the goal is to prevent an Israeli attack, halting progress at Arak is critical.

So by all means, heartfelt thanks are due the French. But a nod may also be due to the deterrent Israel has created by its proven willingness to defend itself by itself.

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Multilateral Counterterrorism and the Sovereignty Objection

Yesterday I expressed doubt that there would be major disruptions to U.S.-European security cooperation because of the latest “revelations” that allies spy on each other. European leaders would, I acknowledged, have to at least feign outrage to placate public opinion, but it’s likely to end there. Today the New York Times offers some more evidence to support this. The paper reports that the French and German governments have agreed to “hold talks” on new guidelines for mutual snooping with the United States.

The noncommittal language is an indication that the leaders of those countries will lodge a complaint with the Obama administration as an end in itself. As for any tangible changes in cooperation with the U.S., Angela Merkel sought to either dismiss or defuse such speculation. She was clear that she wouldn’t seriously consider ending U.S.-EU free-trade negotiations; she was cool to suspending data-sharing agreements for joint counterterrorism programs; and she seems to have succeeded in delaying consideration of increased privacy rules that would hamper American technology companies.

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Yesterday I expressed doubt that there would be major disruptions to U.S.-European security cooperation because of the latest “revelations” that allies spy on each other. European leaders would, I acknowledged, have to at least feign outrage to placate public opinion, but it’s likely to end there. Today the New York Times offers some more evidence to support this. The paper reports that the French and German governments have agreed to “hold talks” on new guidelines for mutual snooping with the United States.

The noncommittal language is an indication that the leaders of those countries will lodge a complaint with the Obama administration as an end in itself. As for any tangible changes in cooperation with the U.S., Angela Merkel sought to either dismiss or defuse such speculation. She was clear that she wouldn’t seriously consider ending U.S.-EU free-trade negotiations; she was cool to suspending data-sharing agreements for joint counterterrorism programs; and she seems to have succeeded in delaying consideration of increased privacy rules that would hamper American technology companies.

Any threats to the free-trade negotiations would reek of excuse-making: France has already threatened the viability of trade talks over its insistence on protecting its glorified soft-core pornographers from international competition. Torpedoing negotiations over security concerns would just enable them to put a more respectable gloss on protectionist impulses. Attacking cooperating private-sector behemoths like Google comes off as petty and punitive, and Britain successfully stepped in to ensure cooler heads would ultimately prevail on that score.

Counterterrorism efforts are likely to remain the focus of the controversy, since that’s the overarching point of contention. Yet it won’t be easy to disentangle aspects of the NSA’s program in Europe that France and Germany can do without from those on which they, too, rely. Today’s CNN report on the rift explains the bind the Europeans have found themselves in when seeking to protest the alleged phone-tapping of European heads of state:

The Europeans have been very grateful to share the benefits of the NSA’s immense data-gathering abilities in counter-terrorism and other fields. U.S. diplomatic cables disclosed by WikiLeaks show Germany was enthusiastic in 2009 and 2010 for closer links with the NSA to develop what is known as a High Resolution Optical System (HiROS) — a highly advanced “constellation” of reconnaissance satellites. One cable from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin said: “Germany anticipates that their emergence as a world leader in overhead reconnaissance will generate interest from the USG and envisions an expansion of the intelligence relationship.”

The 9/11 attacks changed espionage beyond recognition, leading to massive investment in the U.S. in “technical means” — the flagship of which is the enormous NSA data center being completed in Bluffdale, Utah. Its computing power, according to the specialist online publication govtech.com is “equivalent to the capacity of 62 billion iPhone 5s.” But 9/11 also shifted the balance between intelligence-gathering and civil liberties, with the U.S. federal government acquiring new powers in the fight against terrorism — some sanctioned by Congress but others ill-defined.

The technology that allows such enormous data-harvesting cannot be put back in the box, but the limits to its use pose an equally huge challenge. Ultimately, the Europeans need to collaborate with the U.S. on intelligence-gathering, to deal with international terrorism, cyber threats and organized crime. But the Snowden allegations, whether reported accurately or not, have changed the public perception and mood in Europe, obliging leaders like Merkel to take a tougher stand.

This duality is not limited to Europe. The United States is repeatedly accused of violating the sovereignty of nations in public with whom they are colluding in private. Public opinion on this score is seen as something to be managed by leaders who must carefully tend to domestic populist instincts with rhetoric that contrasts sharply with their actions.

Just this week Bob Woodward and Greg Miller reported on how Pakistan fits into this picture. Here is their lead: “Despite repeatedly denouncing the CIA’s drone campaign, top officials in Pakistan’s government have for years secretly endorsed the program and routinely received classified briefings on strikes and casualty counts, according to top-secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos obtained by The Washington Post.”

Pakistan is a hotbed of anti-American sentiment in part due to the mutually beneficial security cooperation that Pakistan both conducts and undercuts as it seeks to protect itself from the very terrorist groups it enables. The Washington Post article nods toward Pakistani cooperation with the drone program as a “poorly kept” secret, which it is. But the documents show, the Post notes, “the explicit nature” of the bilateral agreement on drones.

Nonetheless, Pakistan’s foreign ministry told the Post that a new day has dawned and the current Pakistani government is united in its opposition to drone strikes. It’s plausible, however, that the revelations will have the opposite effect. “I think people knew it already, but this makes it much more obvious, and the [Pakistani] media and others will have to cool off,” a retired Pakistani general told the Post. That’s because it’s not so easy to portray it as a violation of sovereignty when it is very much not a violation of sovereignty–a lesson the Europeans should keep in mind.

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Why We Spy

I have a word of advice for American allies outraged by alleged NSA spying on their leaders: Grow up. That means you Germany. You too France. And you, Brazil. Mexico too. Also the EU and the UN.

Does the NSA spy on your leaders? Probably. Do you spy on leaders of allied states including the United States? Probably. You just don’t have the resources or capability to spy as effectively as the NSA does. But if you did, you would.

Don’t bother denying it. All states subscribe to the principle enunciated by Lord Palmerston, the 19th century British foreign minister and prime minister: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

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I have a word of advice for American allies outraged by alleged NSA spying on their leaders: Grow up. That means you Germany. You too France. And you, Brazil. Mexico too. Also the EU and the UN.

Does the NSA spy on your leaders? Probably. Do you spy on leaders of allied states including the United States? Probably. You just don’t have the resources or capability to spy as effectively as the NSA does. But if you did, you would.

Don’t bother denying it. All states subscribe to the principle enunciated by Lord Palmerston, the 19th century British foreign minister and prime minister: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

In the pursuit of their interests, all states need as much information as possible about the actions and (even harder to fathom) the intentions of other states, even (or perhaps especially) those with whom they are allied at the moment. There is pretty much no state on whose automatic loyalty you can count. Witness how our close allies the French refused to support the Iraq war but took the lead in Mali. Or how the Germans chose to sit out Iraq but participated in Afghanistan. And that’s only looking at security policy; economic policy is also a big deal. The reason why all advanced nations spend a lot of money on intelligence is, in part, to help them answer such questions.

Sure, a much bigger part of the intelligence budget goes, as it should, to analyzing the actions and intentions of enemies, but even if you are narrowly focused on bad actors such as Iran or al-Qaeda, you must have accurate information on the actions of your allies: Will the Germans support tougher sanctions? Will the Italians cooperate in a rendition? And so on. That’s why nations spy on each other in private, even while pledging eternal friendship in public.

That’s why the U.S. intelligence community fears penetration by the intelligence service of Israel (an ally) at least as much as it fears penetration by the intelligence services of avowed enemies such as Iran and Cuba. And with good cause.

There is a partial exception: the “five eyes” alliance between the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Those nations, which have been sharing sensitive signals intelligence since World War II, probably don’t spy on each other’s leaders–but they do spy on each other’s citizens. In fact this intelligence sharing allows them to do an end-run around prohibitions on domestic surveillance: the Brits can spy on our citizens, we can spy on theirs, and then we can share the results.

Everyone else–every other country outside the “five eyes”–is fair game for American spying, and we are fair game for theirs. Of course the leaders of France, Germany, Brazil, et al. know this. But their voters don’t. Much of their anger is faked for public consumption. The only outrage is that anyone is outraged.

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Nixon’s Ghost and the Specter of Hypocrisy

In August 2008, the New York Times checked in on the celebrities expected to attend the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions, and came to an unsurprising tally: “When it comes to big name entertainment and partying, it looks like the Democratic National Convention in Denver later this month might have an edge over the Republican gathering in St. Paul in early September.”

One of the many stars lining up on the Democratic side to spread the gospel of Barack was the actor Maggie Gyllenhaal, who continued to support President Obama in his bid for reelection again four years later. But Gyllenhaal is suddenly not so enthusiastic about the government. She is unnerved by the revelations about the NSA, and has joined an organization to rally this weekend called Stop Watching Us. She and other Hollywood celebrities, such as John Cusack, released a promotional video, which the ACLU is enthusiastically sharing. There’s one curious element to the video, however: it targets, repeatedly, one president: Richard Nixon.

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In August 2008, the New York Times checked in on the celebrities expected to attend the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions, and came to an unsurprising tally: “When it comes to big name entertainment and partying, it looks like the Democratic National Convention in Denver later this month might have an edge over the Republican gathering in St. Paul in early September.”

One of the many stars lining up on the Democratic side to spread the gospel of Barack was the actor Maggie Gyllenhaal, who continued to support President Obama in his bid for reelection again four years later. But Gyllenhaal is suddenly not so enthusiastic about the government. She is unnerved by the revelations about the NSA, and has joined an organization to rally this weekend called Stop Watching Us. She and other Hollywood celebrities, such as John Cusack, released a promotional video, which the ACLU is enthusiastically sharing. There’s one curious element to the video, however: it targets, repeatedly, one president: Richard Nixon.

Now in fairness, the video also includes appearances and commentary by Oliver Stone, so perhaps it’s not meant to be taken seriously anyway. But it’s a good example of the cognitive dissonance this president has inspired in his followers. Nixon, who takes a starring role in the video, remains the mascot for government intrusion and overreach.

At the rally, Michigan Republican Congressman Justin Amash will join such luminaries as Noami Wolf and Dennis Kucinich to speak about the dangers of, presumably, the Nixon administration’s crackdown on domestic liberty, his failing strategy in Vietnam, his belligerence toward Cuba, and his outdated anti-Communism. Oliver Stone does not appear slated to speak at the rally, so Harry Truman will be spared the Nixon treatment.

But at least Cusack and Co.’s outrage seems genuine. While the ACLU rallies against Nixon, our allies abroad are complaining about more phone-tapping allegations, specifically against France and Germany. Marc Ambinder throws some cold water on the outrage there too:

Of course, Brazil, France, Germany, and Mexico do exactly the same thing. They want their leaders to gain a decision advantage in the give and take between countries. They want to know what U.S. policymakers will do before the Americans do it. And in the case of Brazil and France, they aggressively spy on the United States, on U.S. citizens and politicians, in order to collect that information. The difference lies in the scale of intelligence collection: The U.S. has the most effective, most distributed, most sophisticated intelligence community in the West. It is Goliath. And other countries, rightly in their mind, are envious.

“The magnitude of the eavesdropping is what shocked us,” former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told France Info radio. “Let’s be honest, we eavesdrop too. Everyone is listening to everyone else.”

The difference, he added, is that “we don’t have the same means as the United States — which makes us jealous.”

But there’s a limit to the utility of pointing out others’ hypocrisy. A Foreign Affairs essay making the rounds today is from Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore, arguing that the real damage from the WikiLeaks and Snowden revelations is that they will expose America’s hypocrisy. And acting hypocritically, they write, is a crucial and underappreciated strategic necessity:

Of course, the United States is far from the only hypocrite in international politics. But the United States’ hypocrisy matters more than that of other countries. That’s because most of the world today lives within an order that the United States built, one that is both underwritten by U.S. power and legitimated by liberal ideas. American commitments to the rule of law, democracy, and free trade are embedded in the multilateral institutions that the country helped establish after World War II, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and later the World Trade Organization. Despite recent challenges to U.S. preeminence, from the Iraq war to the financial crisis, the international order remains an American one.

This system needs the lubricating oil of hypocrisy to keep its gears turning. To ensure that the world order continues to be seen as legitimate, U.S. officials must regularly promote and claim fealty to its core liberal principles; the United States cannot impose its hegemony through force alone. But as the recent leaks have shown, Washington is also unable to consistently abide by the values that it trumpets. This disconnect creates the risk that other states might decide that the U.S.-led order is fundamentally illegitimate.

I remain skeptical, however. It’s not just that our allies act hypocritically; it’s that they want us to act hypocritically. If nations cater first and foremost to their interests, then they care about the policies of the United States, not the gap between public rhetoric and action. The same is true for the domestic audience: most Americans were happy that President Obama continued many of the anti-terrorism methods used by the Bush administration, because they are vital to national security.

Obama’s hypocrisy was and continues to be noted by conservatives. But conservatives don’t oppose the policies that result from that hypocrisy, because the policies matter more than campaign promises. That is not to say that the public approves of politicians being dishonest to gain office: Obama may have genuinely thought what Bush was doing was wrong and unnecessary until he began getting intelligence briefings. Politicians who don’t have access to all the information are not liars just because they later discovered that their initial instincts were wrong.

Likewise, our allies abroad benefit tremendously from the American national-security infrastructure. They might be angered by the Snowden leaks, but that’s because they’re hypocrites too, and the leaks open them up to domestic criticism for their own hypocrisy. The leaks are plenty damaging to national security, but it’s unlikely they’re going to lose the U.S. the cooperation and support of allies who rely on American power projection and won’t presume to pretend otherwise.

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France’s Domestic Surveillance

The sound you hear is my chortling over the news that France’s intelligence agencies undertake domestic surveillance at least as far-reaching as that of the NSA which European leaders have been criticizing. France also spies on users of Google and Facebook, among other Web networks. The biggest difference between the French and American systems is that the former is run without the elaborate oversight that attends the latter’s activities. Le Monde reports that the French system is run with “complete discretion, at the margins of legality and outside all serious control.”

France is also a top offender in spying on its allies–something that President Hollande has denounced as unacceptable. As this account notes: “Back in 2011, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, France and not China or Russia, was found to be the country that conducted the most industrial espionage on other European countries. WikiLeaks also revealed that the spying network was so widespread that ‘damages it caused the German economy were larger as a whole than those caused by China or Russia.’ ”

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The sound you hear is my chortling over the news that France’s intelligence agencies undertake domestic surveillance at least as far-reaching as that of the NSA which European leaders have been criticizing. France also spies on users of Google and Facebook, among other Web networks. The biggest difference between the French and American systems is that the former is run without the elaborate oversight that attends the latter’s activities. Le Monde reports that the French system is run with “complete discretion, at the margins of legality and outside all serious control.”

France is also a top offender in spying on its allies–something that President Hollande has denounced as unacceptable. As this account notes: “Back in 2011, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, France and not China or Russia, was found to be the country that conducted the most industrial espionage on other European countries. WikiLeaks also revealed that the spying network was so widespread that ‘damages it caused the German economy were larger as a whole than those caused by China or Russia.’ ”

One would hope that these revelations would spare us more mock outrage of the kind being heard from so many countries over NSA activities that are, if anything, limited and tame compared to what they routinely undertake. But rest assured, facts will not stand in the way of America’s critics who are looking for any excuse to kick Uncle Sam in the shins.

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Free Trade and EU Cultural Protectionism

Talk of a U.S.-European Union free trade agreement has been building for some time, getting a boost from lagging Western economies and the obvious benefits of opening up new global markets for expanding companies. But negotiations could very well end before they begin. The issue, as is often the case with large free trade deals, is protectionism.

Despite the fervent hopes of the utopian Eurocrats, the EU isn’t one large country–it’s 27 of them, each with its own industries it would like to protect from free trade. Additionally, the protectionist sticking point is not merely a technical or financial issue, but one sensitive enough to threaten the entire project: culture. France is concerned about what boils down to Yankee cultural imperialism. The Wall Street Journal reports:

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Talk of a U.S.-European Union free trade agreement has been building for some time, getting a boost from lagging Western economies and the obvious benefits of opening up new global markets for expanding companies. But negotiations could very well end before they begin. The issue, as is often the case with large free trade deals, is protectionism.

Despite the fervent hopes of the utopian Eurocrats, the EU isn’t one large country–it’s 27 of them, each with its own industries it would like to protect from free trade. Additionally, the protectionist sticking point is not merely a technical or financial issue, but one sensitive enough to threaten the entire project: culture. France is concerned about what boils down to Yankee cultural imperialism. The Wall Street Journal reports:

As television and movies are increasingly delivered over the Internet, France particularly opposes talks that might limit how European governments impose taxes on technology companies to fund those subsidies.

“The feelings and imagination of each nation are expressed through these services,” Henri Weber, a French member of the European Parliament, told reporters. “Each country has the right to support its creators and authors. This has nothing to do with trade and commerce.”

It actually has everything to do with trade and commerce, and it does not bode well for this trade deal if the nations involved cannot agree on the meaning of the word “trade.” It also calls into question France’s definition of European Union. But that’s part of the illogic of the EU project in the first place, and why it has faltered so predictably. There is no such unified concept as “Europe.” It is a continent of countries each with its own distinct language, culture, and–this one’s important too–national borders.

The EU was supposed to do its best to eliminate those borders in theory if not reality by enabling migration and trade across the continent. But then it turned out that European countries weren’t so keen on the migration part, and now don’t seem to have much desire for trade either. That doesn’t mean they don’t or won’t trade–it just means the creation of the EU hasn’t done much to change the way they do so. They want to trade as individual nation-states, not part of a single unified entity.

There is another rather humorous contradiction in the French objection as well. Industries only need government protection when they cannot thrive on the open market on a level playing field. Sometimes this is done to create jobs to ease worries about outsourcing in a globalized world. Other times it is done to protect important national-security information, as with weapons manufacturers and defense contractors. But the French concern is about culture: that is, the people of France prefer American culture by and large, even though they don’t like saying so. They vote with their wallets. The Journal explains:

U.S.-produced content accounts for more than 60% of TV and radio programs and movies across Europe, despite a patchwork of state subsidies that supports—and possibly protects from extinction—the kind of work that stands little chance of receiving Hollywood backing, becoming a global hit or even turning a profit.

Even in France, the most popular television shows are some of the same U.S.-made police fare that has become the meat-and-potatoes of American prime-time television, including the Mentalist, Criminal Minds and CSI: NY. Medical dramas—such as House and Grey’s Anatomy—also rank near the top.

One French film executive told the Journal frankly that if they had to compete on a level playing field many of the independent French films would never make it to the screen. Many of the films shown at the Cannes festival were, apparently, beneficiaries of government subsidy. The Journal closes by explaining what essential French culture would be lost to the world:

Hollywood studios might be unlikely to back a good number of them, including this year’s winner, La Vie d’Adèle, a love story that features an extended scene of graphic lesbian sex, Mr. Lamassoure said.

And what kind of heartless capitalist monster would seek to deprive audiences of such tasteful French pornographic cinema? Surely they can understand the desire to scuttle an entire free trade agreement over the threat posed by boorish American hillbillies and their inability to grasp the cultural gift that is extensive French nudity.

But of course France isn’t alone in wanting to protect its favored industries. Other European states are supporting France on this because they can’t wait to open the floodgates of protectionism. Neither can the U.S., which has been reminding European negotiators that American companies should be excepted from the rules if European companies are. Fair is fair.

And France’s intransigence can derail the trade talks even without others in their corner because EU rules give each country veto power over the process even before it begins. Demanding preconditions based on veto threats available to 27 countries sets a fairly dangerous precedent. It also makes it clear that the cause of free trade is ill served by the EU, which is a union in name only.

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How Anti-Israel Zealotry Threatens Europe

Two recent developments show the extent to which the mainstreaming of rabid anti-Israel sentiment in Europe is harming Europe itself. One, a new exhibit glorifying Palestinian suicide bombers at one of France’s most famous museums, undermines France’s security. The other, a British union’s decision to effectively bar members from contact with another British workers’ group because the latter opposes boycotting Israel, undermines Britons’ civil liberties.

The exhibit at the Jeu de Paume Museum, which is funded by the French government, features 68 photos of Palestinian “martyrs” who “lost their lives fighting against the occupation.” For instance, there’s Osama Buchkar, who “committed a martyr mission in Netanya”–aka a 2002 suicide bombing in an open-air market that killed three people and wounded 59.

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Two recent developments show the extent to which the mainstreaming of rabid anti-Israel sentiment in Europe is harming Europe itself. One, a new exhibit glorifying Palestinian suicide bombers at one of France’s most famous museums, undermines France’s security. The other, a British union’s decision to effectively bar members from contact with another British workers’ group because the latter opposes boycotting Israel, undermines Britons’ civil liberties.

The exhibit at the Jeu de Paume Museum, which is funded by the French government, features 68 photos of Palestinian “martyrs” who “lost their lives fighting against the occupation.” For instance, there’s Osama Buchkar, who “committed a martyr mission in Netanya”–aka a 2002 suicide bombing in an open-air market that killed three people and wounded 59.

The danger here is that fame and glory are powerful motivators for terrorists. Indeed, one Israeli study based on interviews with failed suicide bombers (people caught before blowing themselves up) concluded that it was the leading motivator. But the Jeu de Paume is far more important to Frenchmen–even marginalized ones–than to Palestinians. Thus being lionized by one of France’s most famous cultural institutions is primarily an inducement to its own citizens.

Granted, the museum only intended this accolade for people who killed Israelis. But Islamic terrorists have proven remarkably impervious to the European view that killing Israelis and Jews (Islamists rarely distinguish between the two) is more acceptable than killing other people. Take, for instance, France’s own Mohammed Merah, who murdered three (non-Jewish) French soldiers in two separate attacks before going on a shooting spree at a Jewish day school in Toulouse. Thus by glorifying anti-Israel terrorism, France is inadvertently encouraging the homegrown variety.

But the decision by GMB, one of Britain’s largest unions, may be even more chilling: Last week, it voted to bar its chapters from visiting Israel on any trip organized by Trade Union Friends of Israel, a British group that supports cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian workers, or addressing any TUFI event. Nor was this just the decision of a few radical activists at the top. GMB’s leadership actually opposed the motion, but the union’s annual congress adopted it anyway.

Just consider how many different civil liberties this one resolution undermines: It restricts freedom of speech, as GMB members can no longer speak wherever they please. It limits freedom of association, since they can’t associate with TUFI. And perhaps above all, it constrains freedom of information: Union delegations can’t participate in trips to Israel that risk exposing them to information that might contradict GMB’s anti-Israel narrative. GMB chapters can still join trips organized by, say, the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign; they just can’t join trips organized by TUFI.

A GMB spokesman insisted that the ban didn’t apply to individuals, which appears to be technically true: A GMB chapter couldn’t send people on a TUFI trip, but an individual could theoretically join one on his own, as long as his chapter didn’t help in any way. Yet how many ordinary union members would risk doing so, knowing they would thereby incur the wrath of union leaders for flouting GMB’s ambition to “take a lead” in the anti-Israel boycott?

One has to wonder when Europeans will finally realize that their anti-Israel zealotry is exacting too high a price at home. Judging by the latest developments, it should have happened long ago.

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Eurozone Unemployment Crisis

Whatever the U.S. unemployment figures turn out to be on Friday, they will be far better than what the eurozone—the 17 countries that use the euro currency—released today. The eurozone economy is contracting, which is to say it’s in recession, and the overall unemployment is a dismal 12 percent, up from 11.9 percent last month.

But the spread among the 17 countries is far, far wider than among the 50 American states. Unemployment is a mere 4.8 percent in Austria and 5.4 percent in neighboring, but far larger Germany. Both figures are much better than U.S. unemployment, which is at 7.7 percent. Germany and Austria are adding jobs, not shedding them like the rest of the zone. That includes jobs in manufacturing, an economic sector that is bleeding jobs elsewhere. The purchasing manager activity index, a measure of manufacturing strength, dropped sharply last month to 46.8 from 47.9 the month before. Anything less than 50 is an indication of economic contraction.

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Whatever the U.S. unemployment figures turn out to be on Friday, they will be far better than what the eurozone—the 17 countries that use the euro currency—released today. The eurozone economy is contracting, which is to say it’s in recession, and the overall unemployment is a dismal 12 percent, up from 11.9 percent last month.

But the spread among the 17 countries is far, far wider than among the 50 American states. Unemployment is a mere 4.8 percent in Austria and 5.4 percent in neighboring, but far larger Germany. Both figures are much better than U.S. unemployment, which is at 7.7 percent. Germany and Austria are adding jobs, not shedding them like the rest of the zone. That includes jobs in manufacturing, an economic sector that is bleeding jobs elsewhere. The purchasing manager activity index, a measure of manufacturing strength, dropped sharply last month to 46.8 from 47.9 the month before. Anything less than 50 is an indication of economic contraction.

In France, the second largest economy in the eurozone, the unemployment rate is 10.8 percent, double Germany’s. In Spain it’s a staggering 26.3 percent, about what American unemployment was at the very bottom of the Great Depression. In Greece, the youth unemployment rate is 58.4 percent. In other words, nearly six out of ten of the young in Greece have nothing better to do than riot in the streets. Now that the weather is improving, they might well do exactly that.

Together with the crisis of the euro itself, most recently manifested in the bail out of the banks in tiny Cyprus, Europe is in deep economic trouble and the solutions are not easy to see.  And Europe is this country’s largest trading partner. The collapse of the euro, or even a severe recession, will not be confined to Europe.

As Bette Davis famously advised, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

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The French Face of Palestinian Propaganda

Israelis are repeatedly being told that their policies of self-defense against Palestinian terrorists and West Bank settlements have soured the world on them. According to this train of thought, Israel is unpopular because of what it does, not because of its existence. But the hatred for the Jewish state, particularly in what many of still think of as the enlightened continent of Europe, has gotten to the point where even the U.S. State Department has pronounced it as part of the engine of a “rising tide of anti-Semitism.” A prime example of how this works comes from the Paris suburb of Bezons where the ability of Palestinian propaganda to demonize Israel has sunk to new depths.

Bezons, which is not far from the city of light, is not exactly a tourist attraction. But it has now garnered some international attention due to an event held at the municipality last month that honored and granted honorary citizenship to Majdi Rimawi, a Palestinian who is currently imprisoned in Israel. According to Bezons Mayor Dominique Lesparre, a member of the French Communist Party, Rimawi’s only crime is to resist Israeli oppression. However, the ceremony omitted the salient fact that Rimawi was jailed for his role in planning the assassination of Rehavam Ze’evi, Israel’s Minister of Tourism in 2001. Ze’evi was just one of more than 1,000 Israeli Jews who were murdered by Palestinian terrorists during the second intifada but the praise showered on his killers by even an insignificant French town speaks volumes about the way Europeans have embraced the false Palestinian narrative about the Middle East conflict.

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Israelis are repeatedly being told that their policies of self-defense against Palestinian terrorists and West Bank settlements have soured the world on them. According to this train of thought, Israel is unpopular because of what it does, not because of its existence. But the hatred for the Jewish state, particularly in what many of still think of as the enlightened continent of Europe, has gotten to the point where even the U.S. State Department has pronounced it as part of the engine of a “rising tide of anti-Semitism.” A prime example of how this works comes from the Paris suburb of Bezons where the ability of Palestinian propaganda to demonize Israel has sunk to new depths.

Bezons, which is not far from the city of light, is not exactly a tourist attraction. But it has now garnered some international attention due to an event held at the municipality last month that honored and granted honorary citizenship to Majdi Rimawi, a Palestinian who is currently imprisoned in Israel. According to Bezons Mayor Dominique Lesparre, a member of the French Communist Party, Rimawi’s only crime is to resist Israeli oppression. However, the ceremony omitted the salient fact that Rimawi was jailed for his role in planning the assassination of Rehavam Ze’evi, Israel’s Minister of Tourism in 2001. Ze’evi was just one of more than 1,000 Israeli Jews who were murdered by Palestinian terrorists during the second intifada but the praise showered on his killers by even an insignificant French town speaks volumes about the way Europeans have embraced the false Palestinian narrative about the Middle East conflict.

That many people around the world sympathize with the plight of Palestinian Arabs who have suffered during the decades of conflict in the Middle East is understandable. But the kind of thinking that leads people to honor a terrorist murderer or to support economic warfare against Israel is rooted in something very different. In order to think that Rimawi, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is a victim, you have to believe that his group’s efforts to bring about Israel’s destruction via the slaughter of its people is justified. Doing so is not a function of legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies or a critique of specific measures but in a conviction that the Jewish state ought to be eradicated and that those who seek that end are in the right.

The honoring of Rimawi stems from the fact that his wife is a former mayor of the West Bank village of Qarawat Bani Zeid that has a sister city agreement with Bezons. It may be that many in France believe the story about the terrorist told in a pamphlet published by the municipality:

Majdi Rimawi has been imprisoned for over a decade by his Israeli jailers. His only crime is defending his city and homeland, and demanding adherence to international law and recognition of Palestine within the 1967 borders. For this he was sentenced to more than 80 years!

One could easily dismiss this as merely another big lie that no serious person could take at face value. But the problem with big lies is that they are, as history instructs us, often more easily believed than the truth. Like other Palestinian terror groups, the PFLP isn’t interested in the 1967 borders, let alone international law. But somehow the intifada, which followed Israeli offers of peace and statehood that were rejected by the Palestinians, has been transfigured into a struggle against Zionist tyranny.

People believe these lies because they have allowed themselves to be persuaded that Israel’s existence is itself an act of oppression though ought to be reversed. The notion that Israel is a product of European imperialism rather than the work of the national liberation movement of the Jews is risible, but in a Europe where colonialism is still thought of as a form of original sin, it is saleable.

But the bottom line here is that the information war being waged against Israel is one based on lies. As is the case with the actions of the Palestinian Authority and its media, honoring killers of Jews as heroes of the Palestinian people is inextricably linked to a belief that the Jews have no right to live. Anyone with even a minimal knowledge of European history knows that there is a long, dishonorable tradition of scapegoating Jews and marking them for death. Once it was justified in the name of religion or race. Now it is justified in the name of anti-imperialism or whatever ideological cover the left is now giving to the Palestinians.

The honoring of Rimawi is not just an isolated publicity stunt. It’s part of an effort to convince the world Israel’s efforts to defend its citizens, whether by active counter-terrorism activities, strikes on missile launches or even passive measures like building a security fence, are unjustified. Those who take such positions and support boycotts of Israel because of them need to understand that there is no difference between what they are doing and pinning a medal on a killer. Delegitimizing Zionism inevitably leads to legitimizing murder.

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Anti-Semitism in France and the Ghost of Emile Combes

At the turn of the 20th century and in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, French Prime Minister Emile Combes tried to ludicrously deny the injustice of the purge of religion from the republic by disingenuously calling upon the separation of church and state. “All we ask of religion–because we are entitled to do so–is that it keep within its temples, that it limit its instruction to the faithful, and that it refrain from unwarrantable interference in the civil and political domain,” Combes said at a public gathering. Yet Combes’s own language could not have been clearer, as he referred to the anticlerical secularists not as bigots and nihilists, but as “freethinkers.” The term was more appropriate than even Combes had probably intended, for those who didn’t think as Combes did were no longer so free to do so.

The danger of French anti-Semitism may have been crystallized by the Dreyfus Affair but it was in the DNA of the post-Revolution republic and the “deal” it offered the Jews of France: there are those who are French and those who are Jews; choose once and choose wisely for yourselves. But that history makes it no less a tragedy that French Jews in the year 2013 wonder if that’s still the only deal on the table, as the UK’s Jewish Chronicle reports:

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At the turn of the 20th century and in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, French Prime Minister Emile Combes tried to ludicrously deny the injustice of the purge of religion from the republic by disingenuously calling upon the separation of church and state. “All we ask of religion–because we are entitled to do so–is that it keep within its temples, that it limit its instruction to the faithful, and that it refrain from unwarrantable interference in the civil and political domain,” Combes said at a public gathering. Yet Combes’s own language could not have been clearer, as he referred to the anticlerical secularists not as bigots and nihilists, but as “freethinkers.” The term was more appropriate than even Combes had probably intended, for those who didn’t think as Combes did were no longer so free to do so.

The danger of French anti-Semitism may have been crystallized by the Dreyfus Affair but it was in the DNA of the post-Revolution republic and the “deal” it offered the Jews of France: there are those who are French and those who are Jews; choose once and choose wisely for yourselves. But that history makes it no less a tragedy that French Jews in the year 2013 wonder if that’s still the only deal on the table, as the UK’s Jewish Chronicle reports:

Last week, the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, warned that “the position of Jews in Europe today is very difficult. There are threats at this moment to brit mila and shechita, and Jews in Europe have begun to ask, is there a place for us here?”

That warning follows a sharp rise in the number of antisemitic incidents in France after the murder of four Jews in Toulouse in March 2012. In the subsequent 10 days, 90 separate incidents were reported, over five times the average rate….

Sandra Dahan Elbase, 29, left Paris for the UK in 2011 and now lives in Cambridge with her French husband. She said: “In Paris I would never wear a Magen David walking around, I was even afraid to read a book in Hebrew on the Metro. There was a climate of fear.

“My family are also thinking about leaving because of the antisemitism,” she said.

The Chronicle story is about the influx of French Jews to the United Kingdom because of this “climate of fear.” Synagogues in London have had to set up entirely new and separate French minyans because of the sheer number of new congregants from France. Those numbers are as high as they are because France has so many Jews to begin with–half a million, the largest Jewish community in Europe. But that number keeps dropping because of the thousands of French Jews who move to Israel alone each year–to say nothing of those who move elsewhere, like the UK. At a recent Knesset hearing on immigration, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Arielle di Porto offered this less-than-convincing protestation:

“The Jews of France did not hysterically call the Jewish Agency after Toulouse,” di Porto said at a session of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee. “Aliya from France is not an aliya of rescue, but one of choice. People come here because they want to live in Israel.”

That the term “aliyah of rescue” is even uttered with regard to the Jews of France is both revealing and absolutely chilling. Granted, this remark was made in the wake of last year’s horrific massacre at a Jewish school in Toulouse, but the statistics say that while the attack’s ferocity and death toll may have been abnormal, that a violent anti-Semitic attack took place was no aberration. The Chronicle reports that although the UK experiences similar numbers of anti-Semitic incidents–hence the strong words from British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–the incidents differ greatly in character:

In 2012 there were 102 violent attacks in France and 69 in the UK. One in four attacks in France involved a weapon.

It was originally stated that in over three-quarters of the antisemitic incidents the perpetrators were reported as being of North African origin, however the SPCJ has now removed this statement from their report.

That line about the attackers being largely from North Africa is a good reminder that the changing demographics of France has only trapped the country’s Jews between its Muslim population and its secular leftist population, both of which remain hostile to the Jewish community in France. (In this, unfortunately, France is no anomaly.) And so di Porto is only technically correct: the Jews of France don’t have to move to Israel, but they seem to feel they must go somewhere. That helps explain why an aliyah fair in Paris last year attracted 5,000 people. Spend any time in Israel these days, as I just did, and you can’t help but notice how common it is for people there to assume you speak some French.

Karl Marx was wrong: history doesn’t always repeat first as tragedy and then as farce. For the Jews of France, there is a sinking feeling history has come as tragedy yet again.

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Iraq’s Lessons for France in Mali

The French are having initial and not unexpected success in Mali. Their fast-moving troops have taken the major city of Gao and are now about to enter fabled Timbuktu. Their advance was made possible–just as with the rapid American success in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003–by the revulsion of ordinary people with a hated and despotic regime. Incredibly, Malians are shouting “Vive la France” to welcome their onetime colonial rulers back.

The epitaph–at least for the time being–for Islamist rule in northern Mali comes from a 26-year-old Malian student quoted in the New York Times lamenting: “No smoking, no music, no girlfriends. We couldn’t do anything fun.” This recalls the Iraqi man who famously greeted the American invasion of Iraq with those immortal words: “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!”

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The French are having initial and not unexpected success in Mali. Their fast-moving troops have taken the major city of Gao and are now about to enter fabled Timbuktu. Their advance was made possible–just as with the rapid American success in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003–by the revulsion of ordinary people with a hated and despotic regime. Incredibly, Malians are shouting “Vive la France” to welcome their onetime colonial rulers back.

The epitaph–at least for the time being–for Islamist rule in northern Mali comes from a 26-year-old Malian student quoted in the New York Times lamenting: “No smoking, no music, no girlfriends. We couldn’t do anything fun.” This recalls the Iraqi man who famously greeted the American invasion of Iraq with those immortal words: “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!”

Unfortunately, Iraqi elation at being liberated soon turned to anger because the U.S. did not do enough to secure the country, allowing the creation of chaotic conditions in which insurgents and criminals ran rampant. That is a lesson France must keep in mind today even as French politicians constantly affirm their desire to evacuate Mali as soon as possible–a hope that echoes the sentiments of Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks during the initial invasion of Iraq.

The French desire to leave Mali is understandable–as was the American desire to leave Iraq. But if the Iraq War taught us anything it should be that an invading force cannot responsibly head for the exits until it has made some provision to maintain stability and security.

In the case of Mali this will be a formidable and long-term challenge. The Malian army is feeble, better at staging coups than fighting hardened Islamist rebels. The peacekeeping force contributed by neighboring West African states is not much better–it is badly armed, ill-trained, and lacking in the most basic equipment. In any case a few thousand troops, even if they were trained and equipped to a much higher standard, would find it challenging to secure an area the size of Texas.

The French troops are currently in the “clear” phase of their counterinsurgency campaign, but unless they stick around for follow-on “clear and hold” operations, their initial gains are likely to prove fleeting. The Islamist guerrillas are retreating so they can fight another day. Stopping them from coming back is going to prove, at least for the short term, beyond the capabilities of the African military forces on the ground. Either France stays and helps to do the job itself or the cheers its troops are now hearing will soon turn to jeers.

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In Mali, Stand with the French

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent much of Wednesday being grilled on Capitol Hill about the conditions which led to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. As John McCain, among others, pointed out, the chaos which prevailed in Libya was not inevitable; it was due in no small part to the administration’s failure to do more to support state-building after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in an American-supported insurgency.

The failure to follow up has destabilized not only Libya but also nearby countries such as Mali, where the French have felt compelled to rush into the vacuum to prevent Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and associated extremist organizations from consolidating their hold on the northern part of the country and even marching on the capital. What’s truly odd is how reluctant the administration is to help the French, even though they are on the front lines of our common battle against jihadism.

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent much of Wednesday being grilled on Capitol Hill about the conditions which led to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. As John McCain, among others, pointed out, the chaos which prevailed in Libya was not inevitable; it was due in no small part to the administration’s failure to do more to support state-building after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in an American-supported insurgency.

The failure to follow up has destabilized not only Libya but also nearby countries such as Mali, where the French have felt compelled to rush into the vacuum to prevent Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and associated extremist organizations from consolidating their hold on the northern part of the country and even marching on the capital. What’s truly odd is how reluctant the administration is to help the French, even though they are on the front lines of our common battle against jihadism.

The administration has finally agreed to airlift a French battalion into the fight but is still holding off on a French request for aerial refueling. The reason for the administration’s reluctance is truly bizarre: According to the New York Times, “A French official, speaking on ground rules of anonymity to describe bilateral discussions, said some officials in Washington were concerned that assigning American tanker planes to refuel French warplanes bombing Islamist militant targets in Mali might make the United States appear as a co-belligerent in the conflict. Even if that view was not supported under international law, it could be the perception across the Muslim world.”

If accurate, this would suggest that “some officials in Washington” are worried that by fighting terrorists we ourselves will become a target for terrorism. Earth to Washington: the jihadists already hate us and are already doing everything possible to do us harm.

Americans, after all, were just killed along with the citizens of other countries in the hostage-taking at a gas plant in Algeria. It seems a little far-fetched at this late date to imagine that we might propitiate the extremists by not fighting them too hard. Actually, if we abstain from the fight, the most likely result is that the Islamists will be able to consolidate their gains in Mali and then turn Mali into a base for terrorism against Western interests—including American interests.

The French may not always stand with us, but in the present instance we must stand with the French and not imagine that we can somehow get out of the line of fire.

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Conflict in Mali Just Getting Started

Mali is getting even more deeply enmeshed in a guerrilla war pitting Islamist insurgents against French troops and their African allies. The latest developments include reports that, following air strikes, French troops are involved in their first ground combat. Rather predictably, despite their blood-curdling rhetoric–one fighter with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb told a Western reporter, “Even if they come at us with nuclear bombs, we will defend the terrain. This is going to be worse than Afghanistan!”–the rebel fighters generally prefer to melt away rather than confront far better-armed and better-trained French forces.

This is straight out of the Guerrilla 101 playbook. As Mao Zedong famously counseled: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”

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Mali is getting even more deeply enmeshed in a guerrilla war pitting Islamist insurgents against French troops and their African allies. The latest developments include reports that, following air strikes, French troops are involved in their first ground combat. Rather predictably, despite their blood-curdling rhetoric–one fighter with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb told a Western reporter, “Even if they come at us with nuclear bombs, we will defend the terrain. This is going to be worse than Afghanistan!”–the rebel fighters generally prefer to melt away rather than confront far better-armed and better-trained French forces.

This is straight out of the Guerrilla 101 playbook. As Mao Zedong famously counseled: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”

While waiting for the enemy–in this case the French–to tire, the insurgents are striking out in other directions against easier targets. Thus they ventured into Algeria to kidnap foreign oil workers, including American, British and French citizens. While this kidnapping operation has already made a media splash, it is a miscalculation on the insurgents’ part.

For a start, it only reinforces the general perception throughout Africa and the West that the rebel fighters are savages who must be resisted, while doing little to undermine the French will to stay on the offensive. More significantly, this criminal act risks widening the number of enemies the rebels must face. By violating Algerian sovereignty, the Malian Islamists risk drawing into the conflict against them the Algerian armed forces, which repressed an Islamist uprising on their own soil in the 1990s with considerable brutality and effectiveness. And by kidnapping Americans, they could well lead to the deployment of U.S. Special Operations Forces to rescue the hostages and assist the French. Thus the rebels have actually handed a gift to their enemies.

That does not mean, however, that the campaign will finish anytime soon. It is one thing for the French to take a few towns out of rebel hands. Altogether more difficult will be securing the countryside and preventing the rebels from regaining control of the urban areas as soon as the French troops leave. As I note in my new book Invisible Armies, the average insurgency since 1945 has lasted nearly 10 years. The conflict in Mali, whatever the outcome of the battles currently being waged, has a long way yet to run.

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France Takes the Lead in Mali

Vive la France.

What else can one say to the news that the French are using their military might to push back al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels who have taken control of northern Mali–a vast region bigger than France itself? While the United Nations passed toothless resolutions and the U.S. expressed concern but did nothing, France’s President, Francois Hollande, acted. He has dispatched some 400 troops backed by helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft to stop the rebel advance, which threatened to engulf the part of Mali still held by the ramshackle government. The U.S., UK, and other allies are providing non-lethal assistance, but it is very much a French show.

This could well be a harbinger of things to come: Given the “lead from behind” doctrine that animates the current American administration, and the declining defense capabilities of Britain, France may well be left as the Western power on the front lines of the fight against Islamist extremism. This move is certainly in keeping with France’s traditionally activist role in its former African colonies–something that Hollande promised to abandon but now seems to be embracing.

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Vive la France.

What else can one say to the news that the French are using their military might to push back al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels who have taken control of northern Mali–a vast region bigger than France itself? While the United Nations passed toothless resolutions and the U.S. expressed concern but did nothing, France’s President, Francois Hollande, acted. He has dispatched some 400 troops backed by helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft to stop the rebel advance, which threatened to engulf the part of Mali still held by the ramshackle government. The U.S., UK, and other allies are providing non-lethal assistance, but it is very much a French show.

This could well be a harbinger of things to come: Given the “lead from behind” doctrine that animates the current American administration, and the declining defense capabilities of Britain, France may well be left as the Western power on the front lines of the fight against Islamist extremism. This move is certainly in keeping with France’s traditionally activist role in its former African colonies–something that Hollande promised to abandon but now seems to be embracing.

There are, however, sharp limits to French capabilities, which is why France is not intervening in Syria, much as it would like to: Bashar Assad’s regime is still powerful enough that it would require an American lead to take on its air defenses. France also lacks surveillance, airlift, and aerial refueling capabilities, all of which are being provided in Mali by the U.S., UK, and other European states.

Important as the French intervention is to block further advances by Malian extremists, France will find it harder to exit than to enter this conflict. Air strikes and the like can temporarily stymie a powerful army of guerrilla fighters but cannot defeat it. That requires boots on the ground for a prolonged period of time to reestablish control.

In Mali, the French hope that force will be provided by Ecowas, the Economic Community of West African States, which is moving up plans to deploy 2,000 peacekeepers. However, given the woeful historic performance of African peacekeeping forces in countries such as Somalia, it is clear that Ecowas, to be effective, will require considerable buttressing from France and other Western states for some time to come. France will also have to work with the U.S. and other states to train up and arm the ineffective armed forces of Mali itself–and to somehow avoid the fiasco of the last training program, run by the U.S., which resulted in units defecting to the Islamists and others overthrowing Mali’s elected leader.

That is undeniably a burden, and one that France would understandably prefer to avoid. But given the alternative–allowing al-Qaeda affiliates to gain control of a major African country–a long-term commitment would appear to be the lesser evil here.

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Have Patience with the Arab Spring

Watching political developments unfold in the Middle East—from Libya’s post-Qaddafi chaos to the growing authoritarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of Nouri al-Maliki in post-Saddam Hussein, and now the violent dissolution of post-Bashar Assad Syria—it is easy to despair of the possibility of real democracy taking root in the region or to pine for the days of the strongmen. Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Columbia University, offers a must-read counterpoint in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. She reminds us that the process of democratic development was not very smooth in Western Europe either—that in fact it took decades, even centuries.

She offers the examples of France, Italy, and Germany: all now well-established liberal democracies but at one point they were anything but.

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Watching political developments unfold in the Middle East—from Libya’s post-Qaddafi chaos to the growing authoritarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of Nouri al-Maliki in post-Saddam Hussein, and now the violent dissolution of post-Bashar Assad Syria—it is easy to despair of the possibility of real democracy taking root in the region or to pine for the days of the strongmen. Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Columbia University, offers a must-read counterpoint in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. She reminds us that the process of democratic development was not very smooth in Western Europe either—that in fact it took decades, even centuries.

She offers the examples of France, Italy, and Germany: all now well-established liberal democracies but at one point they were anything but.

France, after all, transitioned from absolute monarchy by way of the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror. This was followed by numerous further upheavals that Berman does not mention, including the Bourbon restoration from 1815 to 1830, the July Revolution of 1830, the Revolution of 1848, the proclamation of the Second Empire in 1851, the creation of the Third Republic in 1870, the Vichy regime from 1940 to 1944, and, finally, in 1958 the overthrow of the Fourth Republic and the birth of the Fifth Republic which has lasted to this day.

Germany, for its part, was forcibly created by Bismarck out of numerous smaller states in the decades leading up to 1871 and democracy did not emerge until after World War I—only to be snuffed out starting in 1933 by Adolf Hitler. Out of the post-war rubble emerged a West Germany that was democratic and an East Germany that was not. A unified, democratic Germany was not created until 1990.

As for Italy, it, too, did not emerge as a unified state until relatively late (1870). And it, too, saw its nascent democracy usurped by a fascist (Benito Mussolini), and it did not become a true liberal democracy until after World War II.

Nor was the process of democratization painless in the United States: It took two outright wars (the War of Independence and the Civil War) to establish self-government and another period of violent upheaval (the Civil Rights era of the 1950s-60s) to realize the potential of the Constitution.

Considering the tribulations suffered by the U.S. and Europe on the road to democracy, it is hardly surprising that the process of political reform is proving painful in the Middle East. As Berman reminds us: “Stable liberal democracy requires more than just a shift in political forms; it also involves eliminating the antidemocratic social, cultural, and economic legacies of the old regime. Such a process takes lots of time and effort, over multiple tries.”

She is right. Anyone who reads her article, “The Promise of the Arab Spring,” should gain a measure of patience and understanding for what it is currently happening in the Middle East. We cannot expect overnight miracles, but that does not mean that it is possible to cling to the rule of discredited strongmen—any more than Europe today could possibly return to the rule of absolute monarchs.

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Drop the Emotional Baggage of Israel’s “Best Friends in Europe”

Seth made an excellent point yesterday about the irreconcilability of Israeli and European visions of the two-state solution. I’d like to add a linguistic corollary: Israel and its supporters need to eliminate the phrase “Israel’s best friends in Europe” from their lexicon with regard to Germany, Britain, France and their ilk. This is not just a matter of semantics. Aside from the insult to Israel’s one real friend in Europe, the emotional baggage this phrase carries is seriously warping the Israeli-European relationship.

Just consider the events of the past week, following Europe’s decision to support (or at least not oppose) the Palestinians’ UN bid and Israel’s decision to move forward on planning and zoning approvals for construction in E-1, the corridor linking Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim. Europeans are outraged; they feel betrayed. They thought they had an understanding with Israel that it would let the UN vote pass quietly; they felt Israel was being ungrateful for their backing during its recent Gaza operation and their imposition of stiff sanctions on Iran. Israel is also outraged; it feels betrayed. It thought it had an understanding with the Europeans that they would oppose (or at least not support) the UN bid; it felt Europe was being unappreciative of the many concessions it has made to the Palestinians, from an unprecedented 10-month settlement freeze through various measures to bolster the Palestinian Authority’s finances. In short, this isn’t a diplomatic dispute; it’s a lover’s quarrel–which is precisely why it escalated so rapidly and hysterically into threats of sanctions.

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Seth made an excellent point yesterday about the irreconcilability of Israeli and European visions of the two-state solution. I’d like to add a linguistic corollary: Israel and its supporters need to eliminate the phrase “Israel’s best friends in Europe” from their lexicon with regard to Germany, Britain, France and their ilk. This is not just a matter of semantics. Aside from the insult to Israel’s one real friend in Europe, the emotional baggage this phrase carries is seriously warping the Israeli-European relationship.

Just consider the events of the past week, following Europe’s decision to support (or at least not oppose) the Palestinians’ UN bid and Israel’s decision to move forward on planning and zoning approvals for construction in E-1, the corridor linking Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim. Europeans are outraged; they feel betrayed. They thought they had an understanding with Israel that it would let the UN vote pass quietly; they felt Israel was being ungrateful for their backing during its recent Gaza operation and their imposition of stiff sanctions on Iran. Israel is also outraged; it feels betrayed. It thought it had an understanding with the Europeans that they would oppose (or at least not support) the UN bid; it felt Europe was being unappreciative of the many concessions it has made to the Palestinians, from an unprecedented 10-month settlement freeze through various measures to bolster the Palestinian Authority’s finances. In short, this isn’t a diplomatic dispute; it’s a lover’s quarrel–which is precisely why it escalated so rapidly and hysterically into threats of sanctions.

Now contrast this with the response of dozens of non-European countries that also supported the UN bid and oppose settlement construction. Has anyone heard any sanctions threats coming from China or India, for instance? Of course not. And that’s precisely because Israel’s bilateral relations with those countries are based on interest, not an imagined friendship. The mutual interests (mainly economic) are extensive, and both sides are eager to pursue them. But it’s strictly a business relationship; neither side expects anything of the other beyond that. Israel knows China and India will vote against it in every possible forum; China and India know Israel won’t take their views into account when determining its foreign and defense policies. And since neither side expects anything more, they don’t get upset over it.

But the term “friendship” immediately creates expectations. You expect your friends to take your wishes and interests into account, and you feel upset and betrayed when they don’t. And precisely because Israel and its supporters have been referring to Britain, Germany, France and co. for so long as “Israel’s best friends in Europe,” they get upset when they feel Israel isn’t treating them that way, and Israel gets upset when they don’t act that way.

So it’s time to eliminate the emotional baggage. Britain, France and Germany are much better than, say, Ireland and Norway, but they aren’t friends. Like China and India, they’re countries with whom Israel has many mutual interests worth pursuing, but both sides need to accept that they will often disagree–and they need to start doing it like adults.

And if anyone feels an emotional need for a “best friend in Europe,” Israel actually has a real one, with a consistent, decades-old record: the sole European country to vote with Israel at the UN last week, which was also the sole country to buck a worldwide arms embargo 64 years ago and supply Israel with desperately needed planes during its War of Independence. So could we please stop insulting the Czech Republic by lumping it in the same semantic category as Germany, France and Britain?

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Will French Recognition of Syrian Rebels Convince U.S. to Act?

It is easy to lose sight of it amid the breathless, National Enquirer-style reporting on David Petraeus, John Allen, and their communications with various women, but there are other important things happening in the world. Among those events is France’s decision to recognize the new Syrian opposition council, National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, as the country’s rightful government. This is an important step marking the first time that another state has extended official recognition to the Syrian rebels who have just organized, under much external prodding, this new coalition led by Sheik Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the widely respected former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. France has also said it would consider providing arms to the rebel forces.

Once again, as in Libya last year, this places France—this time under President Francois Hollande, rather than Nicolas Sarkozy—at the forefront of important events in the Middle East. President Obama and the U.S. continue to lag behind in trying to influence events in another important country, in spite of the major role played by American diplomats in helping to organize the Syrian National Coalition. That is a major problem, because there is only so much France—or other states such as Qatar and Turkey, which are eager to topple Bashar Assad—can do.

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It is easy to lose sight of it amid the breathless, National Enquirer-style reporting on David Petraeus, John Allen, and their communications with various women, but there are other important things happening in the world. Among those events is France’s decision to recognize the new Syrian opposition council, National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, as the country’s rightful government. This is an important step marking the first time that another state has extended official recognition to the Syrian rebels who have just organized, under much external prodding, this new coalition led by Sheik Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the widely respected former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. France has also said it would consider providing arms to the rebel forces.

Once again, as in Libya last year, this places France—this time under President Francois Hollande, rather than Nicolas Sarkozy—at the forefront of important events in the Middle East. President Obama and the U.S. continue to lag behind in trying to influence events in another important country, in spite of the major role played by American diplomats in helping to organize the Syrian National Coalition. That is a major problem, because there is only so much France—or other states such as Qatar and Turkey, which are eager to topple Bashar Assad—can do.

Only the U.S. can organize a coalition to impose a no-fly zone and thus hasten the end of the barbarous Assad regime. If we fail to act, the humanitarian and strategic costs of the war will continue to grow—as witness recent incidents of Syrian forces directing fire near to, and sometimes over, the borders with Israel and Turkey.

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Hollande’s No Homework Pledge No Joke

My 11-year-old daughter has finally found a politician in which she can fully believe. His name isn’t Obama, Biden, Romney or Ryan. It’s Francois Hollande, president of the Republic of France. Why the affection for Hollande? This allegiance doesn’t stem from support for Hollande’s Socialist Party, as America has no greater supporter of the free enterprise system and the market economy than her. Nor is it based on this junior fashionista’s soft spot for anyone who calls Paris home. It is because he alone of all world leaders has embraced the cause that is nearest and dearest to her heart: a movement to ban homework. Last week, Hollande formally proposed that homework should be illegal. My daughter’s been telling me that every day when she gets home from school for years.

Of course, Hollande’s rationale is not the same as hers. He doesn’t care that homework eats into the time she could devote to recreational pursuits or plays havoc with her schedule on days when she has extracurricular activities or religious studies. He thinks having students doing extra work at home promotes inequality since not all kids have the same resources to aid their efforts. Instead, he wishes to have them spend more time in class where theoretically the playing field is equal. While he may claim that the intention is to help more children, this wacky proposal demonstrates everything that is wrong about the socialist mentality. Rather than seeking to further encourage individual initiative and a sense of responsibility, Hollande wants to give the government more control over education. Taking the terrible Hillary Clinton line about “it takes a village to educate a child” too much to heart, the French president wants to remove parents and caretakers from the equation and extend the state-run system’s hold on every aspect of student life. The impact of this idea, if it were adopted, would be a disaster for a French education system that ranks below most European countries as well as the United States in achievement scores.

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My 11-year-old daughter has finally found a politician in which she can fully believe. His name isn’t Obama, Biden, Romney or Ryan. It’s Francois Hollande, president of the Republic of France. Why the affection for Hollande? This allegiance doesn’t stem from support for Hollande’s Socialist Party, as America has no greater supporter of the free enterprise system and the market economy than her. Nor is it based on this junior fashionista’s soft spot for anyone who calls Paris home. It is because he alone of all world leaders has embraced the cause that is nearest and dearest to her heart: a movement to ban homework. Last week, Hollande formally proposed that homework should be illegal. My daughter’s been telling me that every day when she gets home from school for years.

Of course, Hollande’s rationale is not the same as hers. He doesn’t care that homework eats into the time she could devote to recreational pursuits or plays havoc with her schedule on days when she has extracurricular activities or religious studies. He thinks having students doing extra work at home promotes inequality since not all kids have the same resources to aid their efforts. Instead, he wishes to have them spend more time in class where theoretically the playing field is equal. While he may claim that the intention is to help more children, this wacky proposal demonstrates everything that is wrong about the socialist mentality. Rather than seeking to further encourage individual initiative and a sense of responsibility, Hollande wants to give the government more control over education. Taking the terrible Hillary Clinton line about “it takes a village to educate a child” too much to heart, the French president wants to remove parents and caretakers from the equation and extend the state-run system’s hold on every aspect of student life. The impact of this idea, if it were adopted, would be a disaster for a French education system that ranks below most European countries as well as the United States in achievement scores.

Hollande wants to expand the school week in France from four to four and a half days in order to make the idea work. That will win him no friends even with those children that despise homework.

Most kids and their parents — who are invariably drafted to help them with it — do think of homework as a burden. Some schools may overdo the load of homework but it is a vital method for reinforcing what is learned in the classroom. It also teaches students to work on their own rather than only in groups while under the thumb of their teachers.

It is true that this puts kids without parents or a proper learning environment at home at a disadvantage. But the answer to this problem is not to create a false equality by trying to dumb down students who can manage to complete their homework but by measures intended to aid those who can’t.

As the Wall Street Journal noted in an incisive editorial on the subject, Hollande’s ideas about schools molding the “citizens of the future,” tells us a lot about what kind of citizens he wants France to have.

Fortunately, most French educators and parents are opposed to this scheme, as they understand not only the benefits of homework but also the dangers of relying too heavily on state institutions to monopolize the lives of the young. While many fashions that start in Paris find their way to our shores, this is one that should be nipped in the bud in France.

Though Hollande’s proposal has set off a wave of jokes about him gaining support among those too young to vote, like my daughter, his agenda is a dangerous one. Modern social democratic parties such as his may have, at least for the moment, stepped back from an agenda of toppling capitalism but the anti-individualism aspect of his plan needs to be seen as a peril not only to education but to freedom.

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