With the Elysee presidential palace as an elegant stage, French President Jacques Chirac on Monday delivered a dramatic message that had been rehearsed and refined for weeks: France will go to the limit in its opposition to a U.S. war on Iraq.
Chirac used a hastily organized television interview, his first in-depth domestic discussion of the crisis, to warn that France would veto a U.S.-backed resolution in the U.N. Security Council authorizing military force against Iraq. French leaders regard their veto power as the diplomatic equivalent of a nuclear weapon that should only be brandished -- let alone unleashed -- as a last resort. France has not vetoed a U.S. initiative in the Security Council since the Suez crisis in 1956.
"I above all don't want to argue with the Americans," said Chirac, looking resolute but relaxed during a half-hour conversation with two journalists. "But here we have a problem of principles. We are not in a conflict with the United States ... but we have a problem of principles, I would say a moral problem. Are we going to go to war if we have perhaps a means of avoiding it? That's where France, following its traditions, says if there is a means of avoiding it, we must do all we can."
On Monday, Chirac completed the journey from reluctant ally to hard-line critic and in the process iced any lingering hopes in Washington that France would relent in a last-minute diplomatic pirouette.
"I think people were expecting him to make hostile noises and then come round," said Andrew Knapp, a professor of French politics at Reading University in Britain.
Since September, French diplomats have followed a rigorous and nuanced policy that left open the option of eventual participation in a U.N.-backed military operation against Iraq. Bad personal and political chemistry with the Bush administration worsened in January, however.
And the increasing aggressiveness of both governments has locked them into a collision course, analysts say. Just as a massive military deployment seems to have shaped U.S. policy, France's emergence as dogged champion of the antiwar movement has made anything short of a veto seem difficult to explain at home and overseas.
No single moment appears to have consolidated the French decision, but Chirac's success last month at winning Russia over to the Franco-German antiwar coalition apparently bolstered the French president's resolve. French diplomats saw the U.S. insistence last week on a March 17 deadline for Iraqi disarmament as wholly unrealistic; it may have convinced them that war was imminent, leaving no choice but to draw the veto gun from its holster.
The strategic thinking, meanwhile, ranges from high-minded points of international law to bottom-line political calculations.
As he told his interviewers Monday, Chirac worries that a war will "shatter the international coalition against terrorism," ignite turmoil in the Middle East and hurt the role of the United Nations as arbiter of a world governed by law rather than force. Chirac believes the Bush administration has rushed into a wrongheaded confrontation with a relatively feeble enemy, according to French officials and analysts.
"The president was genuinely concerned about the effect in the Middle East, North Africa and among Muslims here in France," said former French defense official Guillaume Parmentier, an expert on U.S.-French relations at the French Institute of International Relations here. "He thinks Pakistan, Iran and North Korea are much more dangerous than Iraq. They could be importing and exporting weapons of mass destruction."
The legacy of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who steadfastly asserted French independence from the United States, also has an influence, Knapp said.
Chirac said Monday in the interview that he was flattered by such comparisons but added: "Gen. De Gaulle was the first to side with the United States.... He did not oppose for the sake of opposing the United States. He affirmed the interests of France."
Chirac has calculated that French interests -- and his own -- lie with what he sees as the overwhelming weight of opinion among the public and politicians in Europe, the Middle East and much of the rest of the world. He has achieved a remarkable across-the-board consensus among French voters and political parties.
"Chirac's modus operandi is often to follow the people whom he is leading," Knapp said. "He is not a conviction politician, by and large, but a consensus politician who reacts to short-term stimuli and who has been accused of lacking a longer-term strategy."
Nonetheless, Chirac has many friends and years of experience with the Arab world. During a trip to Algeria last week to heal old colonial wounds, he reveled in the cheers of crowds who hailed him as the man who stands up to American hegemony. France has reasserted its clout in the Arab world, a perennial foreign policy objective.
Ironically, the simultaneous chill in French-American relations befalls a leader whose enthusiasm for U.S. culture causes one French diplomatic official to call him "the most Americanophile of French presidents."
Chirac expressed his ultimatum to Washington in a restrained, nonconfrontational tone. He said he believes that President Bush "spoke from the heart" last week when the American leader said the friendship between the United States and France would survive.
"France is not an anti-American country. That's absurd to imagine," Chirac said. "We have two centuries of common history. We share the same values. We have always in difficult moments found ourselves together, hand in hand."
The 70-year-old Chirac showed no trace of the imperious temper that has flashed in contentious moments during the crisis. He said he was ready to confront the risks of his decision, prominently the potential damage to the long-standing U.S.-French alliance.
"Let's not sacrifice our principles and values because there is a moment of crisis," he said.
Although France would not provide troops or military support for any U.S. invasion of Iraq, it would allow American planes to fly over French territory, Chirac said. And he said France would participate in a reconstruction of Iraq that would most likely have to be directed by the U.N.
"We will all have to be involved," he said. "France will fulfill its role."
Holding out a strand of hope for a last-minute compromise, Chirac said it is not too late for the United States to halt its march toward war and give U.N. inspectors the additional time they want -- "a few months." The U.S. will not lose face, he said, because the massive Anglo-American troop deployment in the Persian Gulf has spurred Saddam Hussein to cooperate with inspectors.
"It's highly probable that Iraq wouldn't have given this active cooperation that the inspectors have noted without this pressure," he said. "In reality, they [the Americans] have attained their objective. They have won."
Soft words to accompany a hard decision that is likely to amplify the denunciations of France in the United States.
U.S. critics misunderstand the thinking behind the French attitude, the French diplomatic official said.
"Our American friends are in the process of making a mistake, and we are telling them this," the official said. "The role of true friends is not always to agree."