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U.S./France: While Bush, Chirac Thaw Frosty Relations, 'Rupture In Confidence' Remains

  • Joel Blocker

U.S. President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac, political adversaries over the U.S.-led war in Iraq, met face-to-face for the first time in seven months at the G-8 summit in Evian, France, yesterday. But despite public handshakes and smiles, French analysts believe the two leaders are unlikely to resolve their differences in the foreseeable future.

Paris, 3 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the language of diplomacy, U.S. President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac have "normalized" their relations -- that is, they are now talking to each other with some warmth, or at least politeness, after months of icy hostility over the war in Iraq.

The defrosting was accomplished yesterday on the margins of a summit of the G-8 industrialized counties in the French alpine spa of Evian. After a 30-minute private talk, the two leaders emerged to underscore their new understanding.

Chirac called his meeting with Bush "very positive": "Of course, it was, for us and for me, a pleasure to welcome today President George Bush within the framework of the G-8 summit. This morning, we had a very positive meeting, during which we reaffirmed our common conviction that tomorrow's world will be able to sustain more rapid economic growth."

Bush called his talks with Chirac "comfortable": "I know there are a lot of people in both our countries wondering whether or not we could actually sit down and have a comfortable conversation, and the answer is, 'Absolutely.' We can have disagreements, but that doesn't mean we have to be disagreeable to each other."

Despite the cordial words, French analysts see little prospect of fundamental change in relations between Paris and Washington in the near future.

Francois Heisbourg is head of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research:

"The underlying differences, the basic policy differences, remain completely present. There is absolutely no shift, no change there. The disagreements are there -- I mean the French multilateral vision and the American follow-the-leader vision."

Bruno Tertrais, who is also an analyst at the Foundation for Strategic Research, says deep differences will remain as long as both Bush and Chirac remain in office:

"I think that, in the short term, we'll see Franco-American relations limited to a 'working relationship' between friendly countries. [But] more fundamentally, as long as Mr. Chirac and Mr. Bush remain in power, each in his own country, I can hardly imagine a real relation of [mutual] confidence between the two countries. [That's] because, as you say in English, [the quarrel] was very personal. And I think there is really a rupture in confidence between the two men, the two presidents."

Tertrais also speaks of what he calls "symbolic measures" aimed at showing American displeasure over the French attitude toward Iraq -- notably, the cancellation of planned military exercises. He finds that "paradoxical" because of all the branches of the French government, the Defense Ministry, in his view, is the friendliest toward the United States.

Etienne de Durand is an analyst at the French Institute for International Affairs. He warns of the effect of what he calls the U.S. "reprisals" in the area of military cooperation if they are prolonged for more than a few months.

"If the U.S. reprisals are too numerous or go on too long, the result will be that the French military will draw the necessary conclusions," he said. "I mean, these are very concrete matters that we're talking about here. That is, from the moment that you begin to reduce a certain number of posts [in the French military] involved with some of their American equivalents, those posts in the United States are filled by other foreign officers [from other countries]."

De Durand notes, as do other analysts, that French military cooperation is important to the United States because France is one of a handful of nations able to take part in large-scale peacekeeping efforts around the world. He concludes that what he calls two different "logics" are now in conflict.

"There is a long-term logic, according to which the United States has no real interest in burning its military bridges [with the French]," de Durand said. "[But] in the short term, the logic of reprisals is pushing the American government to take aim against the area easiest to strike at French interests -- [that is, the military]."

In any case, de Durand adds, the damage already inflicted on Franco-American relations could prove to be enduring. Unlike Tertrais, he sees the conflict less as one of personalities than of national attitudes and interests.

Even if Bush is not re-elected next year and a Democrat is installed in the White House, de Durand believes, relations between Paris and Washington would not suddenly improve.

"What has occurred," he says, "will leave its traces."