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U.S.: France Complaints Cast Doubts On U.S.-French Rapprochement

Whither French-American relations? Many expected the long-time allies to patch up their ties once the firestorm over Iraq subsided. But a new letter from Paris accusing Washington of a smear campaign against France suggests Franco-American relations may not improve quickly.

Washington, 16 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Next month, French President Jacques Chirac will welcome the leaders of eight of the world's richest nations to a summit in the picturesque French town of Evian overlooking Lake Geneva.

Normally such a shimmering view would be the perfect backdrop for smiling presidents and prime ministers as they raise their glasses to toast the stability and prosperity produced by their enlightened alliance.

But this year's G-8 party risks being spoiled by a souring of relations between Washington and Paris. Along with Germany and Russia, France bitterly opposed a U.S.-British bid to win United Nations backing for the war in Iraq.

"It is going to be a very awkward meeting between the host of that summit, the French President Jacques Chirac, and President Bush. My hope is that President Bush will not ignore Chirac the way he ignored [German] Chancellor [Gerhard] Schroeder at the NATO summit in Prague in late November," Simon Serfaty, a French-born American analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told RFE/RL. Serfaty wonders whether the rift between the two nations is widening in the wake of Saddam Hussein's downfall.

Are U.S.-French relations simply going from bad to worse?

Yesterday, "The Washington Post" reported that Paris believes it is the victim of an "organized campaign of disinformation" by members of the Bush administration, designed to smear France with charges of complicity with Hussein.

The newspaper said the French government made its allegations in a letter to the administration and members of Congress. The letter provided details of what France considered a series of false news stories, quoting anonymous administration sources, over the last nine months.

The latest story, in "The Washington Times," alleged that France had provided former members of Hussein's regime with passports that enabled them to escape to Europe.

France has vehemently denied those media reports, which have also contained allegations of commercial military aid to Saddam's regime. The French Foreign Ministry yesterday told its diplomats to monitor American media for what it called further untruths and said the reports "profoundly shocked the French people."

The Bush administration has rejected the charge that it has led a smear campaign against Paris. At a White House briefing, spokesman Scott McClellan played down reports that relations with France are worsening. "Our position is that we are looking forward," he said. "We have had some past differences, and we want to look forward. France is a friend, they are an ally, and we have a long-standing relationship there. There are many areas of common interest where we can work together. And we're moving forward."

But analysts say it's clearly a delicate moment in U.S.-French relations. Serfaty called the letter "astonishing, given the nature of the charge." He told RFE/RL that the letter, while aggressive, is part of a French bid to repair its relations with America. He compared Washington's leading role in world affairs to the dominance in basketball of the legendary player Michael Jordan.

"They would like to stop making the bilateral relationship worse. They know very well, the French know very well that we live at the time of U.S. preponderance, that you cannot simply play Michael Jordan one-on-one, that the best you can do is take him out for dinner. They tried to play him one-on-one and it backfired," Serfaty said.

For his part, Serfaty said he doesn't believe the Bush administration would have organized a smear campaign against France, even if some officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, said Paris will face consequences for its obstruction on Iraq.

But the French-born analyst said some members of the administration may be responsible for planting the stories. Asked why some officials allegedly would want to damage relations with Paris, Serfaty said, "There is a perception, possibly, that a rift between the U.S. and France or between the United States and some of the countries willing to follow France, including Germany, would in a sense split the European Union."

Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that France and Germany were part of "old Europe," while he looked to "new Europe" in the East as the continent's new voice.

Rumsfeld's remark and those of other U.S. officials, who praised the East European states for supporting the U.S. on Iraq, have led to speculation that America wants to "divide and conquer" Europe as it expands next year to include these nations.

Paris and Washington continue to wrangle over a new UN resolution on rebuilding Iraq. France and other nations argue that the current text does not give the UN a strong enough role in Iraq and want a stronger voice in determining how oil revenues will be used. However, France has not threatened to use its veto in the Security Council over the resolution, as it did threaten to do against a U.S. call for UN approval for war.

U.S. diplomats have expressed optimism that the current differences at the UN will be overcome. After meeting officials in Paris yesterday, Richard Haas, director for policy planning at the State Department, was upbeat about the future of relations with France. He said he was optimistic the two countries could reach agreement at the UN on Iraq.

Yet some conservatives in Washington remain displeased. Nile Gardiner of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank told RFE/RL: "I think that relations with France are getting worse. The French are not making any real effort at the moment to repair that relation. They are becoming increasingly difficult at the United Nations on the sanctions question. They are trying to obstruct the lifting of sanctions at the UN, and this deeply unhelpful for the future of the Iraqi people."

Gardiner added that he believes the media reports about France's alleged complicity with Saddam Hussein are well-founded. He said the British press has published similar reports.

But the British-born analyst said the Paris-Washington rift is about more than Iraq. He thinks it has a lot to do with France's desire to lead, together with Germany, a centralized Europe Union that would be a counterweight to Washington. "And I believe the United States has a very important role to play in shaping the future of Europe. It's certainly not in the interests of the United States for a federal United States of Europe to emerge, because that united Europe would be fundamentally opposed to America on most key foreign policy questions," Gardiner said.

Whether France and the U.S. agree on the UN resolution could have a direct bearing on next month's summit on the sloping shores of Lake Geneva. Gardiner, in any case, still thinks it's is unlikely to be a rousing celebration. "And I don't expect Jacques Chirac to be invited to President Bush's Texas ranch any time in the near future," he said.

But at least Bush plans to stay at a hotel in France. The White House has dismissed reports that the president would sleep in a hotel in nearby Switzerland to show his displeasure with France.