France's rejection Thursday of a British proposal on disarming Iraq set off cross-channel diplomatic broadsides primed by accumulated tension and frustration.
The acrimony was especially strong on the British side. Wearied by a struggle for compromise at the U.N. Security Council, British leaders accused France of making a war in Iraq more likely. They called the French attitude "intransigent," "unreasonable" and "extraordinary."
The French response was more restrained. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin offered vague but conciliatory-sounding words about wanting to "preserve the unity of the council" and remaining open "to all opportunities."
Nonetheless, the divisions in the European Union appeared pronounced enough to endure beyond the Iraq crisis. The idea of a united Europe with a common foreign policy, a goal toward which the EU has advanced fitfully, seemed fanciful Thursday.
France, joined by Russia and Germany, struck the first blow of a heated day. The three partners in the antiwar bloc speedily dismissed a British compromise proposal that would augment the resolution by establishing specific tasks and a deadline for Iraqi disarmament.
De Villepin said France opposes the initiative because it authorizes automatic military action without further consideration by the Security Council, essentially locking the U.N. into a planned U.S. invasion.
"This is not about giving a few extra days to Iraq before resorting to the use of force, but about advancing resolutely on the path of peaceful disarmament laid out by the [U.N. arms] inspections," De Villepin said in a written statement.
The foreign minister told radio interviewers that the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has not deviated from "a logic of the ultimatum, of automatic recourse to war, which for us is unacceptable."
De Villepin's usually soft-spoken counterpart, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, retorted that the French government was missing a chance to avoid war.
It is "extraordinary that without even proper consideration the French government decided they would reject these proposals, adding to the statement that whatever the circumstances, France will vote no," Straw said.
Straw alluded to President Jacques Chirac's vow Monday that France would veto the proposed British-U.S.-Spanish resolution "whatever the circumstances."
French diplomats Thursday asserted that Chirac's meaning had been misrepresented as intransigent, noting that his position was based on the arms inspectors' assessment of the Iraq situation as of Monday night and therefore could evolve.
Chirac's "war against the war" has revived long-simmering anti-French sentiment in Britain, where many voters are reluctant about becoming full-fledged members in a European Union that has traditionally been dominated by France and Germany. Britain belongs to the 15-member grouping but has not yet taken the major step of joining the common euro currency.
The Iraq crisis has also made allies of Blair and his Conservative opposition, led by Iain Duncan Smith. The Tory leader sounded much like Blair's spokesman after meeting with the prime minister at his residence at 10 Downing St. on Thursday. Smith said French resistance to a compromise has made military action more likely.
"The prime minister today told me that although they continue to try to seek a second resolution in the U.N. and will continue to do so, that second resolution is now probably less likely than at any time before," Smith said. He quoted the prime minister as saying, "The French have been and become completely intransigent and literally threatened to veto almost anything that is put forward to the U.N. Security Council."
A Downing Street spokesman said the French position was "poisoning" the diplomatic process.
The British government's language was carefully chosen. In order to appease voters who are hostile to unilateral military action, Blair has repeatedly indicated that he would only circumvent the U.N. process on Iraq if he was faced with "an unreasonable veto" at the Security Council. Blair's aides Thursday seemed to be laying the foundation for a case for war without U.N. backing.
The British strategy still rests on slogging forward with efforts to persuade the undecided nations on the Security Council to support the resolution. In fact, a Foreign Office official said, the British proposal of six benchmarks for the Iraqi regime was inspired "by Chile and Mexico's desire to see more detail on the tests."
Nonetheless, the confusion at the U.N. has left British officials unsure whether they can line up the nine votes needed for passage. The officials say it is not their understanding that all three African countries on the Security Council are on board, as had been suggested Wednesday by U.S. officials.
Chirac's warning that he is prepared to cast a veto has provided cover for the undecided countries on the Security Council that would prefer not to vote in favor of an unpopular war if the measure is doomed to failure, British officials said.
As for the acrimony in Europe, Chirac hopes the economic and political interdependence of the EU nations will heal wounds once emotions have subsided, an analyst said.
"As soon as the Iraq crisis is over, he expects the European nations will unite because they have so many issues in common to deal with," said Roland Marchal of the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris.