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Possible war presents France with dilemma over competing interests

PARIS—It's become even harder than usual to predict where conflicting national interests will propel France in coming days, as it considers whether to stiffen or buckle under U.S. pressure to back a possible invasion of Iraq.

France holds a pivotal position in the diplomatic debate over Iraq because it has veto power in the United Nations Security Council, where President Bush would like to obtain a new resolution backing any U.S. war effort.

At home, French leaders don't want to alienate an adamantly antiwar electorate, inflame a Muslim population that is Europe's largest, or jeopardize France's economic interests in Iraq. That explains France's public position of going slowly and allowing U.N. inspectors more time to comb Iraq for banned weapons.

Yet France is well practiced at playing hard to get with the United States, holding out as long as possible to gain more influence in world affairs. And while French President Jacques Chirac is keen to put a French stamp on any action at the United Nations, he will be extremely reluctant to confront the world's only superpower by vetoing a war resolution at the Security Council. If chief weapons inspector Hans Blix's report to the U.N. Security Council on Friday proves damning to Iraq, Chirac could get the political cover he needs at least to abstain on any such vote.

Chirac knows that if war proceeds despite a French veto, the Security Council itself—and France's influence—could decline.

"The problem is that France feels it is on an equal footing with the U.S," said Philippe Moreau Defarges of the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. "But we are not equal."

Opposing war has served the French government well at home. A poll by the BVA Institute, published this week in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro, found that 63 percent of those surveyed thought the U.S.-French split was a "good thing" for the global balance of power and 60 percent thought it good for France's place in the world.

A poll published in the French newspaper Le Monde last weekend found that 76 percent of those surveyed opposed military intervention in Iraq.

If France doesn't give way, at least by abstaining on any U.S.-sponsored Iraq resolution, French-American relations could be headed toward disaster.

Noel Mamere, an outspoken antiwar member of the French National Assembly's foreign relations committee, acknowledged, "We are at the beginning of a very big crisis."

Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation Feb. 5 to the United Nations was widely viewed here as failing to justify an attack on Iraq, with French newspapers lambasting its lack of proof.

"It's just a pretext for attacking Iraq," said Christian Naud, an architectural historian who was drinking a cup of espresso in a Louvre museum cafe. "What have the inspectors found?"

Perhaps nowhere is French hostility toward the United States more apparent than in its large Muslim population, estimated at 4.5 million people from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

French leaders fear that a war against Iraq would trigger a backlash or a spate of terrorist attacks from militants who have become increasingly radicalized by the worsening of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At Mohammed Tharazant's butcher shop off Rue Max Dormoy in the heavily ethnic La Chappelle section of Paris' 18th District, the mere mention of a U.S.-led attack on Iraq provoked agitation.

"If they make war with us, we will make a war with them," the Moroccan immigrant said, wielding a machete against a side of beef. "There will be bombs everywhere, bombs in the Metro (subway system). Just like Israel and the Palestinians. It will be World War III."

Chirac also must consider the economy. France has been a trading partner with Iraq since the time of the emperor Charlemagne, and sold billions of dollars in weapons to it during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. When Chirac was prime minister in the mid-1970s, he invited Saddam Hussein to Paris. Chirac also visited Iraq to see the French-built nuclear reactor at Osirak, dubbed O'Chirac but later destroyed by Israeli jets.

A spokesman for France's Economic Ministry, who declined to be identified, played down his country's economic interests in Iraq. He said that fewer than 60 French companies do about $1 billion a year of business with Baghdad under the U.N. oil-for-food program, and that trade represents a fraction of a percentage point of France's gross domestic product.

"We're not looking at Iraq as a future market today, because nobody knows what it will be in six months," he said.

But Stephane Marchand, the deputy business editor of Le Figaro, said France's potential economic interests—which an American-led military intervention could undermine—were "not insignificant." French oil giant TotalFinaElf has an edge over American competitors; it explored Iraqi oil resources and negotiated contracts in 1996 to develop the bin Umar and Majnoon fields.

Competing concerns may leave Chirac a loser no matter what happens, if he is forced to chose between popular support and a diplomatic disaster with the United States.

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(Gerlin reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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