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France: Forecasts Say Trans-Atlantic Storm Likely To Abate

The U.S.-British military campaign has apparently succeeded in toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein, but not in changing the French government's attitude toward the war in Iraq. President Jacques Chirac insists that Iraq's reconstruction be led by the United Nations, not only in terms of humanitarian relief but administratively, economically, and politically as well. RFE/RL's Paris correspondent says that suggests the French-American quarrel over Iraq will continue into the foreseeable future.

Paris, 10 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- President Chirac said this week that only the United Nations, not individual UN member states, is entitled to lead the reconstruction of Iraq.

Speaking to reporters on 8 April after a meeting with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers, Chirac said the world is "no longer in an era where one or two countries can control the fate of another country" -- a clear reference to the United States and Britain. He went on to say: "As far as establishing the necessary means for reconstructing Iraq is concerned -- political, economic, human, humanitarian -- I have no other comments to make. Naturally, we consider that the UN must play an essential role."

Chirac also disclosed that he will attend the long-scheduled meeting on 12 April in St. Petersburg between Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The three leaders all strongly opposed the U.S.-British military intervention in Iraq, with France leading the diplomatic effort in the UN Security Council.

Over the past quarter-century, France and Russia developed extensive economic interests in Iraq. After the 1991 Gulf War led to the imposition of UN sanctions on Baghdad, France benefited the most economically as the biggest supplier of foods to the UN's oil-for-food program. Russia says Iraq owes it $5 billion from the Soviet era. France says Baghdad is in debt to Paris for some $8 billion.

U.S. President George W. Bush also addressed the issue of Iraq on 8 April. After a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Northern Ireland, Bush said the UN must play a "vital role" in Iraq's reconstruction. But he appeared to characterize that role as largely humanitarian and advisory rather than the UN having a role in overseeing the country's transition to a new government.

A few hours later, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin sought to reconcile the diametrically differing views: "I believe we [France, Britain, and the United States] agree that the UN should have a full role in this [Iraq's reconstruction]. Reality, legitimacy, and the international community will tell whether this will be a 'central' role or a 'vital' one. We believe that the more the [international] community stands united, the greater is the chance of the process being a success."

Neither Chirac nor de Villepin -- nor any other top French government official -- has yet made any public comments on the 9 April entry of U.S. troops into central Baghdad. Chirac and Bush are not believed to have communicated personally since early February, although de Villepin has renewed his contacts with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Despite de Villepin's effort to give Bush's use of the word "vital" the best possible interpretation, it seems clear that the French-U.S. quarrel over Iraq, which erupted publicly three months ago, is likely to continue. But according to some French analysts, the current trans-Atlantic storm may abate in the coming weeks or months.

Reacting to yesterday's events in Baghdad, France today said it welcomes the fall of Saddam's regime in Iraq and called for a speedy resumption of humanitarian aid. Chirac said in a statement that he "hopes the fighting will end soon" and expressed "satisfaction" with the collapse of the regime.

Bruno Tertrais is an analyst with the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. Our correspondent asked Tertrais whether he agrees with Chirac's recent remark that the United States and France will soon "come to an arrangement" that would end -- or at least diminish -- their differences.

"Yes, overall, yes. I believe that one should not dramatize this too much. We are still in a very emotional period. In fact, that's normal. We're still in wartime. I think, too, that some [French] business circles have an interest in dramatizing the situation, hoping for aid or subsidies from French authorities," Tertrais said.

But it is not only French business circles that fear the consequences of a continuing quarrel between Paris and Washington. At a Paris conference on 2 April of U.S. and French businessmen and former officials, American participants repeatedly warned their French counterparts not to underestimate the effect of Paris' stance on Iraq.

Felix Rohatyn is a former U.S. ambassador to France. He said he is not sure that French bankers and financiers really understand the impact in the United States of the French position toward the war in Iraq. Rohytyn added that "all sorts" of Americans are reacting in the same way.

"There is no split on this [issue] between Republicans and Democrats," he said.

A French participant in the conference, Michel David-Weill, head of the international Lazard Bank, said that what had most surprised Americans was the "militant fashion" with which the French government acted.

"You have to go back to the Cold War," David-Weill went on, "to find a [U.S.] feeling so strong against another country."

But most conference participants agreed with French analysts who are playing down the likely economic effects of the continuing bilateral quarrel -- with two major exceptions. Big French construction and water-installation firms, such as Bouyges and Vivendi, are likely to be excluded from the reconstruction of Iraq as supervised by Washington. The same is true of France's huge oil company, TotalElfFina, which in 1997 signed a so-called pre-contract to develop oil resources in Iraq.

According to the current issue of the respected French economic monthly "Capital," TotalElfFina had in effect obtained permission to install oil derricks at two sites -- Majnoun and Bin-Umar. The magazine calls the sites "two underground oceans of oil" from which TotalElfFina was authorized in the pre-contract to pump 1 million barrels of crude oil each day -- that is, the monthly says, 65 percent of current French oil consumption.