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France: Government Is Riding High On Its Influence

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 4 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- France's so-far successful role as middle-man in the United Nations' dispute with Iraq has underlined the determination of both conservative President Jacques Chirac and the ruling Left Government to assert their country's traditional independence in world affairs.

That role continues with the current visit to Baghdad of a high-ranking French diplomat carrying a message from Chirac to President Saddam Hussein urging his compliance with the UN Securities Council resolution on weapons inspection passed earlier this week.

Since the start of the current crisis, France has positioned itself both as a mediator between the U.S. and Iraq and, within the Security Council's five permanent members, as a buffer between the U.S. and Britain on one side and Russia and China on the other. Paris has sought above all a non-military solution to what it insists is a strictly bilateral confrontation between Washington and Baghdad. This stance, the only one of its kind by a nominal U.S. ally, has not won France plaudits in Washington, where some officials have barely concealed their scorn and outrage. But in Baghdad, where the French Foreign Ministry's top civil servant Bertrand Dufourcq is meeting today with high Iraqi officials, France's neutrality in the dispute has reinforced its privileged relation with the Gulf country. It was Chirac himself who, more than two decades ago, established close ties between France and Iraq. As prime minister in the mid-1970s, Chirac negotiated multi-billion-dollar trade deals with Iraq, bartering oil purchases for the sale of sophisticated technology and arms. Saddam himself was received in Paris as a friend as well as a trading partner of France. The trade arrangements continued virtually up to the outbreak of the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, in which France only reluctantly joined the U.S.-led coalition.

Some analysts believe Paris' hesitation was based largely on more than $2 billion in trade arrears then -- and still -- owed to it by Baghdad. They say the same commercial considerations are behind France's current efforts to avoid a new armed conflict with Iraq. But high French officials insist that there is more to their Government's middle-man role then just money. They say France is fulfilling its chosen and necessary role as a counter-weight to the U.S.' dominance of the international community.

Socialist Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine is, along with President Chirac, the leading articulator of that view. In an article in the current issue of the British weekly "Economist" (dated Feb. 28), Vedrine is quoted as saying that the idea France is merely a middle-ranking power is, in his phrase, "quite wrong." According to Vedrine, the U.S. is what he calls a "hyper-power," but there are, he told the magazine, "seven (other) powers with world influence -- Russia, China, Japan India, France, Germany and Britain." He acknowledges that each of the seven perhaps lacks something --whether it be space, wealth, democracy or a global language -- but their total impact adds up to what Vedrine calls a "multipolar world."

Known for his outspokenness, Vedrine says further that France in particular must, in the Economist's paraphrase, "continue to wield an influence far greater than its economic weight might reflect." In his language, that means the exertion of the maximum possible French influence within the European Union, which can serve as a vehicle both for extending that influence world-wide and, eventually, a counter-balance to U.S. domination. It also means, he makes clear, that France is not anxious for a swift or far-reaching EU expansion to Central and Eastern Europe, due to get underway in four weeks with the opening of substantive membership negotiations with five Eastern candidate states (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia).

This will come as no surprise to many officials in the 10 Eastern candidate states (the other five are Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia). They remember that in 1991 former French Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, Vedrine's mentor and former boss, made a bad name for France in Central and Eastern Europe by suggesting it would take decades for area countries to be admitted to the EU. They know, too, that more recently France, along with Italy and Belgium, have declared no expansion to the East can be begun before the Union agrees on necessary internal reforms. Given the EU's recent inability to agree on such reforms, their position amounts to an indefinite postponement of enlargement.

Analysts say that one major reason for France's lack of enthusiasm for a larger EU is that inevitably it would lead to a reduction of Paris' clout and move the Union's center of power politically as well as economically to Germany. Critics say that in any case France's economic difficulties -- chronically high unemployment and failure to meet the challenges of globalization -- will lead to a loss of international influence.

But all agree that today the French Government is riding high on its influence, at least at home. Public-opinion polls show that close to two-thirds of French men and women approve of Paris' stand in the current crisis with Iraq. The same polls show that Chirac has just gone over the 50 percent margin in popularity ratings for the first time in two years.