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U.S./France: Chirac Seeking To Improve Relations

French President Jacques Chirac is seeking to warm the icy relations between Washington and Paris that prevailed during much of the run-up to the U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq. Yesterday, for the first time in more than two months, Chirac had a brief telephone chat with U.S. President George W. Bush.

Paris, 16 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The telephone conversation yesterday between Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush, initiated by Chirac, lasted no longer than 20 minutes -- including translations. It was their first such direct communication since 7 February.

Chirac's spokeswoman, Catherine Colonna, called the talk "positive."

According to White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, the brief chat was "businesslike."

Both spokespersons noted that Chirac told Bush that France would approach the reconstruction of Iraq by "acting pragmatically, case by case." But Fleischer added that "pragmatic" was "an interesting choice of a word. I don't know how to explain it. Perhaps France can explain it."

U.S.-French relations have effectively been frozen since January when Chirac -- and his foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin -- began publicly opposing a U.S.-British military intervention in Iraq. France believes any military action against Iraq should only have been undertaken with the direct approval of the UN Security Council. In recent days, Paris has adopted the same position in regard to Iraq's reconstruction, in which it said the UN must play a "central" role.

But the word "central" was notably absent from French spokeswoman Colonna's account of the Chirac-Bush conversation, which simply noted that "everyone has an interest in seeing the emergence of UN authority in Iraq."

She said France now wants to work with Washington on a variety of issues. They include Iraq's disarmament, an interim Iraqi government, and the country's oil resources. According to Colonna, Bush "thanked [Chirac] for this conversation and for this approach."

U.S. diplomats in Paris, who asked not to be named, said Chirac's phone call probably indicates a French change on the key issue of UN authority in postwar Iraq. Bush has said the UN should play a "vital role" in Iraq's reconstruction, but made clear he thought that role should be largely in the area of humanitarian relief.

Some French analysts see Chirac's initiative in reestablishing contact with Bush as an attempt to move beyond the ideological stances that divided relations in the past few months.

Bruno Tertrais of the Foundation for Strategic Research sees another important reason for Chirac contacting Bush yesterday. He says the French president's optimism earlier this year that things would eventually "work out" between Washington and Paris was not shared by many in his government.

"When it comes to the United States, as you know, President Chirac is pretty much an optimist and, during the [bilateral crisis] in February and March, he assumed that after a few months had passed, relations would become normal again. That optimism was not shared by a significant part of the French establishment, especially by the [French] diplomatic corps. So there was genuine concern beginning in February within the French government about how to effect a reconciliation with the United States after the [Iraqi] crisis."

Tertrais also says Chirac wanted to deliver a message in contacting Bush. The message is that, over and above the opposing stances the two countries have taken on the role of the United Nations in the reconstruction and administration of Iraq, what France wants is to play a role, no matter who is running the country.

Tertrais sees the Chirac initiative as a gesture of goodwill. But he is not sure it will be enough to satisfy the Bush administration.