The French Say Handling Iraq Crisis Took a Certain Savoir-Faire--Theirs


Still wondering who came out on top in the Iraq crisis? The French will be only too happy to tell you: They did.

"France showed that the best partners of the U.S. are those who know how to stand up to it," Alain Peyrefitte of the Academie Francaise, guardian of French culture, wrote recently. "Discreetly, without ever putting President Clinton in difficulty, it contributed to helping him avoid a terrible faux pas in holding the diplomatic door open."

When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visits Paris on Sunday for lunch and talks with her counterpart, Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, she should find her hosts quite satisfied with themselves.

From Socialists to conservative Gaullists such as Peyrefitte, French leaders are patting themselves on the back for their part in bringing about a peaceful, if tenuous, end to the U.S. standoff with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The byproduct could be a boost in Paris' international prestige and influence, decidedly moth-eaten after foreign policy failures that included abortive attempts last year to get Romania included among the first group of new North Atlantic Treaty Organization candidates and to win a major alliance command post for a French admiral; and the ouster of late Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, whom France had supported.

While insisting that Hussein toe the line on U.N. resolutions, France--Iraq's biggest Western trading partner--also advocates using carrots along with sticks. An emissary of President Jacques Chirac was in Baghdad on Wednesday to assure the Iraqis that if they respect the deal reached last month with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, they can hope for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Paris also flatly rejects the U.S. interpretation of Monday's U.N. Security Council vote. Clinton says the resolution gives U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf region "authority to act" if the Iraqis go back on their word. The English text of the U.N. resolution may threaten "severest consequences," but the French point out that in their language it is significantly softer: "de tres graves consequences"--very grave consequences.

To assist Annan in his eleventh-hour mission to Baghdad, Chirac lent him his presidential jet and, along with France's leftist government, pushed for a compromise formula to open Hussein's "presidential palaces" to U.N. weapons inspectors. A grateful Annan later said French assistance had been "enormous."

In a radio interview this week, Vedrine declared that the outcome of the crisis proved France's unique ability to act as a "lever" in world affairs. Vedrine, a Socialist, stressed that his country wants "constructive convergence, not damaging discord," with Washington.

But plenty of other officials and observers in Paris were less diplomatic. By helping Annan succeed, the conservative Le Figaro magazine went so far as to claim, France avenged the "slap in the face" of the 1956 Suez debacle, when then-President Eisenhower forced France and Britain to cut short their military intervention in the Egyptian crisis.

Opinion polls suggested that the conservative Chirac and Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin won a sizable bounce from their opposition to U.S. military action against Iraq.

But the episode has also bared the inability of the 15-member European Union to forge a common position on a vital issue.

France was the leading Western nation to say it would have nothing to do with renewed bombing raids on Iraq, while Britain fell into line with Washington. Ironically, this happened as the Labor government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair held the European Union's revolving presidency.

For some on this side of the Channel, Blair's actions confirmed suspicions that when the chips are down, the British will always be more interested in preserving close ties with the U.S. than in helping build a stronger, unified Europe.

"In spite of his professed ambitions of European leadership, he [Blair] promptly sank at the first crisis into the traditional mold," Le Monde newspaper commented scathingly.

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