Accessibility links

U.S.: French President To Meet With Bush In Washington

  • Joel Blocker

French President Jacques Chirac travels to the United States on 18 September to discuss with U.S. President George W. Bush last week's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Chirac is also scheduled to travel to New York to meet with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Paris, 17 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- French President Jacques Chirac is scheduled to travel to Washington on 18 September to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House.

The meeting is taking place against the backdrop of less than all-out domestic support for France granting its approval of a U.S. military retaliation for the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

The meeting was scheduled months ago but is now expected to focus almost entirely on the attacks and U.S. plans for retaliation. Our correspondent says the French are particularly interested in probing Washington about what kind of assistance it will seek from its NATO allies, which last week collectively expressed their support of U.S. efforts.

Chirac will be accompanied on the trip by Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine. Chirac had been due on 19 September to address the annual UN General Assembly, which has now been canceled. Instead, he is to meet in New York with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

A spokesman at the presidential offices in Paris's Elysee Palace said on 15 September that Chirac had been consulting with other European Union leaders to formulate what was termed a "common approach" to the attacks' aftermath.

Initially, Chirac had been the most enthusiastic French official backer of U.S. retaliation, speaking of "total solidarity." In an interview with U.S.-based television station CNN on 13 September, he stated flatly that "France will be at the side of the United States when it comes to punishing this murderous madness." The next day, however, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was far less enthusiastic. Jospin emphasized France's right to make its own "appreciation" of the matter. And a chorus of his government ministers expressing the same hesitation soon followed.

Foreign Minister Vedrine said the causes behind the terrorist attacks had to be addressed, as well as the attacks themselves. That was widely interpreted to be a criticism of what many Western European -- and particularly French -- officials see as the Bush administration's failure to play a major role in negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis to end the latest year-long conflict.

Defense Minister Alain Richard publicly emphasized the necessity of taking long-term action against terrorism and "not limiting oneself to a punitive action that would not resolve the problem." His colleague, Justice Minister Marylise Lebranchu, added: "Justice and vengeance are not the same thing."

Others noted that Article 5 of NATO's founding charter, which says that all member states will consider an attack on one as an attack on all, does not imply the automatic participation of all members in a military operation. Still others insisted that France should not back any U.S. military action unless it was specifically mandated by the UN Security Council -- beyond the general endorsement of "legitimate defense" provided by the council last week.

It is not only on the left that doubts about French aid in an eventual U.S. military operation are being expressed. A big fear among some center-left politicians is that an all-out U.S. retaliatory action could take on the character of a war against the Muslim world.

Former centrist President Valery Giscard d'Estaing said he naturally favored removing "terrorist networks," but warned that a war of industrialized countries against Muslim states "made no sense." A former conservative prime minister, Alain Juppe, echoed this theme, warning: "We must not undertake a crusade against the Arab world, the Muslim world. That would be a geopolitical error."

On the center-right, only Alain Madelin, leader of the Democratic Liberty Party, voiced unconditional support for the United States. He said the "traditional subtleties" that this kind of debate provoked in France should be avoided, and he appealed for total solidarity with the United States.

Five days ago, Chirac -- in the American television interview -- had also spoken of virtual unanimous French backing. But by the weekend, his spokesmen were clearly backtracking. They termed Jospin's remarks about each U.S. ally having the right to make its own assessment "the common position of France of the [European Union] 15."

In eight months, Chirac and Jospin are likely to be facing each other in a presidential run-off election. Analysts say that between now and then, neither has any interest in undermining what little remains of effective cohabitation in France -- particularly in foreign policy and security affairs. Nor does either stand to gain by ignoring French public opinion, which, according to a poll published 16 September, backs a U.S. and NATO response to last week's attacks by a ratio of more than 2-to-1 (68 percent in favor).

The constitution of the Fifth French Republic makes the president the commander-in-chief of all French military forces. That allowed Francois Mitterrand to align his government with the U.S.-led Gulf War coalition a decade ago despite strong doubts within his own Socialist Party, which was then running the government.

But the same constitution makes the prime minister "responsible for national defense [and the right] to dispose of the armed forces" as he sees fit. So it remains to be seen how harmonious the security cooperation will be between the president and the prime minister, as the United States decides on its plan for retaliation and calls on its allies for support.