In 2003, then-French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin waged a bitter fight against the Americans at the United Nations. France was opposed to the military campaign in Iraq, and enlisted Germany and Russia to its side. The speech Villepin gave at the time has been taught in French diplomacy schools ever since. Former U.S. President George W. Bush and his Republican camp were furious at the French and for years dreamed of how to punish them.
Ten years have passed, and U.S. President Barack Obama has managed -- again -- to do the impossible. He has angered the French (we've already mentioned it is not prudent to be Obama's friend), but mainly he has turned two well-known American senators, John McCain and Lindsay Graham, into the darlings of France, and in just one weekend. McCain's tweet of "Vive la France" took Paris completely by surprise. Obama is undoubtedly a miracle worker.
Saturday night was especially long and nerve-racking. The Iranians did not believe that France would go so far. But it appears the French had at least three reasons for their unwillingness to bend, despite pressure from the other delegations. Firstly, France is not prepared to abandon its interests in the Persian Gulf. It has too much stuff to sell in Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Qatar for it to give in to the Americans. Secondly, France has never been a big fan of America's solo routine when it comes to dealing with the world's problems. This hasn't changed. There is another reason, too, and no less important: France does not trust the Iranians. Paris is convinced that the proposed deal is a bad one and does not actually prevent the Iranians from fulfilling their nuclear aspirations.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius began his meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on a very tense note. From Fabius' perspective, Iran's resistance to cease work at the heavy water reactor at Arak and to stop enriching uranium points to just one thing.
It must be made clear that France opposes a military strike against Iran, and prefers to prevent such an attack through a diplomatic agreement. But the French are reminiscent of the Israelis in their thought processes: For Iran to bend, it must be met with toughness. This, incidentally, is what they have been hearing incessantly from Jerusalem and Riyadh. France also believes that Israel will invoke its military option if there is no other choice.
The smiling president of Iran, Hasan Rouhani, thought perhaps that he had managed to overcome the French hurdle at the U.N. General Assembly in New York last September. It is not a coincidence that he wanted to meet with French President Francois Hollande. Iran's charm campaign called for addressing each and every obstacle in its path. Obama, for all intents and purposes, is not an obstacle. The Iranians understood a long time ago already that he is even more interested in a deal than they are. It is plain to see: The "most Israeli delegation" at the Geneva talks is the one from France. Rouhani had hoped to charm Hollande. And while the Iranian smile did look good, it did not look good enough to get a French kiss in return.
Regardless, Tehran sustained an unquestionable blow in Geneva, but it is not fatal. Officials in Paris know very well that it will be difficult to fight the Iranians alone. At this rate, during the next round of talks France will not need to stand against the Iranians but against the other superpowers. Or, if you prefer: Instead of the P5+1 we will have the P5 minus 1. What have things come to?
Obama has certainly succeeded in changing the world order. He has helped Syrian President Bashar Assad to dream of extending his term in office in 2014; Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to dream of an Egypt with an Islamic beard before he is sent off to prison; and Hasan Rouhani to dream of becoming the father of the Iranian nuclear bomb.
But perhaps the biggest thing that Obama has done is to make us all younger again by turning the clock back 40 years, to the days when France was Israel's main defense partner.
We are not in the past, however, and the Israeli Air Force will not attack Iran with French-made Mirage fighter jets, if it attacks at all.
However, we can still congratulate the French for their efforts, and even if they are ultimately unable to prevent a bad deal from being signed then at least the world will know that Israel is not the only paranoid country in the world. There are other countries out there who are not interested in looking like suckers in front of the Iranians.