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France: Relations With U.S. And Britain Likely To Remain Cool

  • Joel Blocker

With the war in Iraq under way, France is now seeking to improve its ties with the United States and Britain following its successful fight to withhold United Nations Security Council approval for unilateral military action against Baghdad. But as RFE/RL reports, France's new diplomatic efforts to warm up relations with its onetime allies may prove to be a challenge.

Paris, 25 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- French President Jacques Chirac signaled a new, more friendly stance toward Britain and the United States almost immediately after military units from the two countries stormed into Iraq last week. Chirac, who has determined French policy throughout the Iraqi crisis, issued a relatively mild statement that went no farther than to "regret" -- a mild word in diplomatic parlance -- the U.S. and British action.

A few days later, at the European Union's summit in Brussels on 21 March, Chirac went out his way to hold a brief, private meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But Chirac has also made clear that France will not tolerate the United States and Britain running a postwar military and civilian administration in Iraq alone. And for the past several days, French officials have indicated Paris will insist on what Chirac calls "international legality" -- that is, a UN framework -- to back up any postwar administration in Iraq.

Some French analysts say Chirac's position on the issue may have long-term consequences for the country. Guillaume Parmentier directs the Center on the United States at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI). "The French have to understand clearly what the price to be paid for their present attitude will be. Contrary to what many observers have said and written, I don't think that the problems are going to be in the economic field or in trade field. Official boycotts [have been] made illegal by the World Trade Organization, and the U.S. would certainly be fined very heavily if this were done. [In addition,] the French cannot be boycotted without some effect on their neighbors, including some that have supported the United States -- because the large French companies are already very Europeanized," Parmentier said.

Parmentier said he has supported Chirac's position throughout the Iraqi crisis, and that Washington failed to adequately demonstrate to the Arab and Muslim worlds that it had exhausted all other options before pursuing a military resolution. Still, he said, France stands to lose political ground as a result of Chirac's staunch opposition to the U.S. and British position.

"There are [other, more important] consequences to be faced, and they will be political. For example, the United States trying to isolate France -- to go through mechanisms that do not include France -- by bypassing the Security Council of the UN, to a degree [by] bypassing the European Union, trying to do things with a select number of partners. [The Americans] won't be able to do that all the time. They'll try to do it when they can. And that obviously will put France in a difficult position, especially as far as crisis management is concerned," Parmentier said.

Another French analyst, Francois Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, sees French-American and French-British relations remaining cool for the foreseeable future. "For the moment, we have indeed a continuation of the rift which had occurred from mid-January onwards -- both [among] the Europeans and between so-called 'Old Europe' and the U.S. The next stage which we may see in this process may occur once some form of civil authority is established in Baghdad -- whenever that may happen. Or possibly even before that, because, as you know, Iraq [has been] under UN Security Council sanction and an embargo ever since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990," Heisbourg said.

Heisbourg added: "My assumption is that the forces of occupation -- and I use that expression in a legal sense, not as a criticism -- the forces of occupation and/or an Iraqi civil authority, which would have been established in the wake of that occupation, will presumably want to see a lifting of the sanctions and the embargo. It can only be done if there is an affirmative vote by the Security Council."

Heisbourg believes that what some American officials in Paris describe as the current "icy" relations between Washington and Paris will certainly last for a while. He said there is distrust and a lack of confidence on both sides -- even possibly "an entirely mutual loathing." In addition, he noted, President George W. Bush is "otherwise occupied" with the conduct of the war in Iraq. So the present moment is not, in Heisbourg's view, the most "propitious" moment for beginning a damage-limitation exercise.

As Heisbourg sees it, British-French relations are of a different nature because there are very important issues that must be decided by members of the European Union in the coming months. They include moving toward the adoption of a new constitution, which Heisbourg said is now likely to take more time than was originally thought. He noted, too, that confirmation of the EU's enlargement is due to take place at a summit meeting in Greece later this spring.

Heisbourg was asked: Could the current trans-Atlantic crisis, and the revelation of deep internal divisions within the EU, slow down the EU's enlargement process? Not the current wave of enlargement, he answered.

But he wasn't so sure when it came to the projected second wave of enlargement from Southeast European countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia. On that issue, he said, some of the older EU members are likely to have a more conservative attitude than they had before the Iraqi crisis.