September 11 viewed from France

It has become almost a banality to say that a rift exists between the two shores of the Atlantic Ocean, and that it has even grown into a perfect deaf to deaf dialogue. At a precise moment however, it seemed that the effects of September 11’s tragedy, deeply felt by the French population, would be improving the relationship and bridging the gap between the two sides.

Thus, in a recent interview published on Le Monde, Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged that everybody in the US still recalls the famous editorial of the French newspaper claiming a few hours after the tragedy that “we are all Americans”.

 Truly, that was almost a general feeling in France. To perceive it you should have to travel in the deep country as I did at that moment and to chat with people of different ages and occupations. I was then climbing the Alps, following the steps of grand-grand father Hannibal, with however more modest projects. I was not planning to take Rome from its backside, but only visiting one of the most beautiful regions in Europe. It was when I descended from the mountain and headed back to Chamonix that I heard the news. All the people I met during those days, on my road from Annecy to Paris, were shocked. The tension was unimaginable. On the radio, the TV, and in all the media it was 24 hours on 24 continued talk about what has happened in America. All of a sudden, people wanted to know more about Islam.  What struck me that in my own surroundings, I was not asked about the American tragedy, but only about Islam. Which means that I was not expected to answer these questions as a political journalist, but merely as a Muslim.

Understandably, the Christians é who form the majority of the population in this country – discovered suddenly that they might be ignoring totally or partially who is actually dwelling next door! There was a rush on books about Islam, and mainly on the translated Koran, rarely seen in the recent times. Everybody seemed to wonder about Islam.  Is it possible that this religion, which is officially acknowledged to be the second in France – (there are about 6 million Muslims here)- could be so misunderstood? In the wake of September 11, I heard some people saying for example: ” They (the Muslims) envy us, and hate our way of life”! But why should Muslims hate the Western way of life whereas they are part of it, as citizens or residents of these countries? Anyway, one of the first results of September 11 in France affected the way the French majority é Christian- perceived Islam. Maybe this is just a coincidence, but it has to be noticed that the French government accorded a particular importance to bringing the representatives of the Muslim population into an official structure, following that renewal of interest in all that matters to Islam. It is known for example, that although the Jews are less important in number than the Muslims, they are much more and better represented in respect of the official institutions. Thus, we may find Jews anywhere in the French institutions, from business to parliament, and some of them have reached the posts of Ministers in varied governments. But we cannot say that the Muslims are represented according to the importance of their number in the French society.

So, as a first conclusion I state that if September 11 has aroused a renewal of interest in Islam inside France, it has also clarified the disproportion in the representation of this community.

The second result may be more concerning, as it is related to the dark side of some Islamist activism. This has been demonstrated by the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, a thirty four years old French activist é from Moroccan descent- who has been arrested in the USA on August 16, 2001, for outlasting his visa, then charged of participating to the preparation of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

 The most interesting feature in this affair concerns the way the FBI handled the case of Moussaoui. According to the French magazine L’Express [1], the D.S.T. (: domestic counter-intelligence) has transferred the file of Moussaoui to the FBI agent Coleen Rowley since August 29, identifying him as an activist who had been trained in Afghanistan camps. The French authorities then asked the American to send him back to France, where Mr. Bruguiere , the anti-terrorist attorney was in charge of his case. But nothing happened. The agent Coleen Rowley could not get any favourable answer from the FBI headquarters in Washington. And it was only after September 11 that the Americans charged Moussaoui of complicity with the terrorists. The fact that he was taking lessons in the Pan Am Flight school at Minneapolis, which he had paid cash ($8300) did not even attract the attention. Bureaucratic slowness weighed heavily on this affair. Moussaoui is now facing trial in the USA. In case his involvement with the terrorist plot is proven, the FBI bureaucracy would be likely blamed for failing to prevent the September 11 attacks when it was possible to do so, since one of the terrorists was in their hands as well as data from the D.S.T connecting him to Al Qaeda, before the fateful day. Otherwise, it is only if he is innocented by the law-court that the FBI would be cleared of all responsibility: Being innocent, Moussaoui could not have revealed anything about the plot.

The case of Moussaoui revealed also the ultra-sensitivity of the French society to the Islamist threat, as it has been proved by the assassination of several French citizens in Algeria, by some terrorist attacks on the French national territory, and by all the obscure schemes surrounding the relationship between France and its ex-north African colonies.


However, to come back to our starting point, there is indeed a rift between America and France, wherein Islam and ex-colonies have definitely nothing to do.

I remember particularly a story published on The New York Times [2] in the beginning of this summer, which focused on specifying all the contradictions and the misunderstandings that undermine the relations between the USA and France. In fact, the observers know all the events related by the writer. Franco-phobia in America and anti-Americanism in France are not really something new. But in the wake of September 11, some details might get either exaggerated or misinterpreted. Thus, the writer did not fail to notice the excessively inflated é and in my opinion unjustified é importance accorded in France to the book of Thierry Meyssans: ” L’effroyable imposture”, attributing the September 11 terrorist attacks to a United States government conspiracy.

Likewise, Emily Eakin remarked that the “cultural mistrust” reached even some French corporations. Thus, the ousting of Jean-Marie Messier, the hard-driving chief executive of Vivendi Universal, the French media conglomerate, “took on an anti-American cast when it was reported that he had been perceived by disgruntled French stockholders as too favourably disposed to America and its business models.” And explaining what was reproached to Messier, Eakin went on saying: ” He ditched Paris for Park Avenue and insisted that even the company’s French managers use English on the job. Under the new leadership, Vivendi’s American executives will get lessons in French history and etiquette, and will be encouraged to demonstrate that they like France.”

I wonder whether Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Henri Miller, Lawrence Durrell, and all the famous artists and intellectuals who chose France as their residence country, would have appreciated such conditions prior to their settling down. And how about the Arab renaissance writer Sheikh Tahtawi, author of the famous ” takhlis el ibriz fi talkhisi bariz”, which had had the influence we know on the Arab mind in the beginning of the XXth century, who wrote naturally his admiring book

 about Paris in Arabic? Would anybody pretend that Tahtawi did not like France, because he was writing in Arabic?

Anyway, I am not taking part in this polemic, but only wondering whether some stereotypes and bias are making any dialogue easier, not only between the Arab-Islamic civilization and the West, but also inside the Western world itself.

The writer of the above mentioned N.T.’s story could be blamed for example for ignoring partially an important part of the French history, while writing about this delicate topic. She says for instance: ” the Dreyfus Affair helped establish France’s reputation as a haven for anti-Semitism, a notion reinforced by evidence of substantial French collaboration with the Nazis under the Vichy regime”. Nothing is more unfair than such accusations. It seems as if Mrs Eakin omitted completely the prestigious history of the French resistance movement against occupation, as well as the trial of the Vichy administration on top of which Marechal Pétain himself, after the liberation. Moreover, I do not think that the Americans are more sensitive to anti-Semitism than the French, who had completely banned any Nazi site from the Internet, and who had battled in law-court against “Yahoo” and other American web servers for this cause. It is also known that the French judicial system sued some writers with charges concerning history revisionism and denial of the holocaust. This has been the case of Mr. Roger Garaudy, who just wondered whether the number advanced by the historians (6 million dead in the holocaust) was not inflated by the Israeli propaganda. Likewise, I do not think that Emily was fair to the French when she said: ” France’s capitulation to the Germans in 1940 made the French into eternal cowards, just as Charles de Gaulle, a famously stubborn and uncooperative ally, secured his fellow citizens a permanent reputation in this country [USA] for untrustworthiness and arrogance.”

A little effort consented to the study of France’s history would have prevented Emily Eakin from falling into these light and skittish judgments.

On the other side, it is true that some French writers have not been very kind to the USA either. In this context, if Ignacio Ramonet, director of Le Monde Diplomatique evoked in one of his editorials September 11 just to recall that it was the anniversary of the Coup against the Socialist President of Chile Salvador Allende in 1973, organized by Pinochet with the CIA assistance, another important representative of the French intelligentsia, the sociologist Jean Baudrillard, afforded even to say that  “there is a prodigious euphoria to see that world superpower destroyed”.[3] And he added : ” Everybody without exception dreamed of these attacks. This is a fact.” Which means that the USA deserved to be punished.

Some other intellectuals have been more moderated or more cynical, while considering the September 11’s events. Thus, the writer Max Gallo while regretting that  ” the gap between the Europeans and the Americans gets so wide”, states that he is today ” much less anti-American” than he used to do. Bruno Etienne says: ” I grudge them mainly for the genocide they perpetrated on the Indians. You see, this is an old story.” Another writer, Pascal Bruckner, looks at September 11 as the precursor sign of the American powerlessness: ” How can we still bear the idea of the overall American power whereas September 11 revealed all those flaws in the USA?” However, it is Denis Tillinac  who read the anti-Americanism and the Anglophobia of some French intellectuals as a real illness. For him, in effect, the latter are merely cultivating masochism by attraction to the sense of paradoxes. ” Soon, they will find some virtues to Ben Laden”, he says, and ” maybe some of them have already found them in Saddam.”

But it is likely Emmanuel Todd who produced the most anti-American book of this fall. For him, to fear America today is nonsense, just because America has lost its own sense. The American empire is about to see the collapse of its function in a world conquered by democracy and globalisation. In fact, the USA is trying to gain more control by using tension in order to save their market: ” It is America that is now beginning to be frightened, not the reverse”, says Todd. ” If the demography would progress, the USA as a military power would become quite useless to the world. I think that this is the reason behind its increasing hostility toward Europe.” [4]

Thus, a year after the tragedy in the USA, the French society is still wrestling with its old demons: anti-Americanism and Islamism sound quite attractive to the French publishers. No less than 70 books  focusing these two topics, will be sharing this fall the shelves of the Parisian bookshops.

Recently, the magazine Le Point [5], while reviewing the book of Jean-Franéois Revel (anti-American obsession) wondered whether the ungratefulness of the French toward their American liberators has not grown into “a national duty”. Furthermore, the reviewer states that perched on Victor Hugo’s famous “légendes des siécles”, the French have taken to the habit of judging ” a people without history”,- otherwise without culture, thus deserving contempt – since it is a people of immigrants much less preoccupied with history as it is told than with making it.

Yet, if the Americans are a people without history or culture, then what can France do with Dos Passos, Faulkner, S. Fitzgerald, Henri Miller, Hemingway, Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, etc?

For my part, I will end this story with another quotation from one of the French press pundits, Jean Daniel, director of the “Nouvel Observateur”, who writes in his last editorial: ” This world is American. It was so since the end of the cold war. It is still more so since September 11, 2001.” [6]


[1]  L’Express: 13 June 2002. Ce que la DST a transmis au FBI. By Jean-Marie Pontaut and Eric Pelletier.

[2]  New York Times:  July 6, 2002. In the U.S. Nowadays, Little Love for France. By Emily Eakin.

[4]  Emmanuel Todd: Aprés l’empire, Essai de décomposition du systéme américain. Gallimard.

[5]  Le Point: September 8, 2002. L’obsession antiaméricaine.

[6]  Jean Daniel and Josette Alia: La grande leéon du 11 septembre. Le nouvel observateur. September 5, 2002.

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.