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French react angrily to Rumsfeld's `old Europe' remark

PARIS—French leaders have been howling ever since U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld described France and Germany on Wednesday as part of the "old Europe."

"If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the center of gravity is shifting to the east and there are a lot of new members," Rumsfeld said.

The Germans reacted coolly to Rumsfeld's comments, made to a group of foreign journalists in Washington after a show of Franco-German solidarity against an early Iraq war. But his remark infuriated the French, who spent a good part of Thursday accusing the sharp-tongued secretary of indiscretion, tone-deafness, supporting terrorism and even criminality.

The politicians' umbrage reveals more than French national pride. It reflects widespread anger, analysts say, and deep, fast-growing opposition to a U.S.-led war against Iraq. The French are also determined to remain at the center of any decision to go to war.

"The `old Europe' still has some spring, and is capable of bouncing back," Economics Minister Francis Mer told the French television station LCI. Mer said he was "deeply vexed" by Rumsfeld's comment.

Jack Lang, who has served as France's minister of both culture and education, called Rumsfeld's remark "irresponsible, dangerous and criminal."

Martine Aubry, mayor of Lille and a former labor minister, criticized the "arrogance of the U.S. that keeps wanting to govern the world by themselves with fewer and fewer rules."

The French public remains firmly against military action, even with a United Nations mandate. Three-quarters of French polled Jan. 17 by the CSA agency for the liberal newspaper L'Humanite said France should veto any U.N. Security Council resolution approving the use of force against Saddam Hussein. French opposition to military action is registering above 80 percent.

Leaders in Paris have slowly begun to reflect public opinion. On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said his nation saw "no justification today for an intervention, since the inspectors are able to do their work. We could not support unilateral action."

The next day, French President Jacques Chirac stood by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder at a celebration of 40 years of postwar cooperation, and declared that the two countries are committed to letting the U.N. inspectors finish their work. Inspectors are due to brief the U.N. Security Council on Monday in New York.

Francois Heisbourg, who runs the Foundation for Strategic Research, a private research institute in Paris, said he'd never seen American-European relations so grim. The French position on Iraq is not posturing, he said.

"There is more going on here," he said. "There is a ground swell of rejection of the war. This is true in essentially all of Europe, only slightly so in the United Kingdom."

The French, Heisbourg said, suspect that the United States' main motive for war is economic: Iraq has the world's second-largest supply of oil.

"The French think a case for clear and present danger in Iraq has not been made," he said. "There are folks around here who take Iraq seriously, but nobody is going out on the hustings saying, `If we don't go to war in the next six weeks the world will be a much worse place.' That proof is not around."

Polls in Germany mirror French sentiment that a strike against Iraq would damage the international war on terrorism. Sixty-eight percent of Germans said military action against Iraq would increase terrorism, according to a Jan. 15 poll released by the German agency Forsa.

Despite France's peaceable rhetoric of late, some analysts see the French position as still flexible, and doubt that France would block a U.N. resolution supporting an Iraq war.

Jeffrey Gedmin, an American conservative who heads the Aspen Institute in Berlin, a transatlantic research center, said Schroeder's and Chirac's latest statements showed France's caginess and Germany's immaturity.

Schroeder has promised not to vote for a war resolution when Germany rises to lead the Security Council on Feb. 1 for one month. Chirac said any decision about war should be made by the United Nations—after the inspectors have finished.

"The French give themselves many doors and windows, while Schroeder seems to make the box he is in tighter by every utterance," Gedmin said.

"If the (Bush) administration handles this one right, the French will say no until one midnight to midnight," Gedmin predicted. "But when they see that military action will happen, and they know it will be multilateral, with Britain and Spain and Italy and a small coalition of Arab states, and they know we will be successful, then they will say yes."


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

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