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French or Foe? Tensions With Oldest US Ally

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 24, 1996


Two sensitive diplomatic missions this month put a raw edge on relations between the United States and its oldest ally, France.

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US Secretary of State Warren Christopher's visit to Africa in early October prompted a French diplomat to comment in the press that the visit to Africa, a region where France has deep historic ties, was an electoral ploy.

"The time is past when outside powers could consider whole groups of countries as their own private domain," Mr. Christopher snapped back, in a pointed reference to France.

Similarly, French President Jacques Chirac's offer to "cosponsor" the Mideast peace process during a trip through the region this week rankled American diplomats. Many see this and previous French offers to get involved in the peace negotiations as muddying the waters in a region where the US has been the dominant foreign partner.

France has also threatened to halt its move back into NATO military structures, unless a French officer is assigned to head NATO's Southern Command in Naples. Americans reject the notion that anyone but an American should command US forces in the Mediterranean, a region viewed as key to the defense of US security interests in the Middle East.

At issue is more than wounded national pride. France and the US, whose strong diplomatic ties go back to the American Revolution, are the only nations that claim to have a world role and a universal message. For France, extending the reach of its culture, especially the French language, has been a primary object of foreign policy. Nowhere is that policy more evident than in sub-Saharan Africa, where France has 17 former colonies and devotes 62 percent of its development assistance.

'They will have to learn French'

The US and France are also at odds over who is to succeed Egyptian Boutros-Boutros Ghali as secretary-general of the United Nations. The US has been lobbying to deny him a second term, on the grounds that he has not been willing to take up necessary reforms. France is a strong supporter of Mr. Boutros-Ghali, a French speaker, but even in this case, links its support to the defense of the French language.

"It is in the interest of Africa to have a man who is close to the problems of development, and at a time when southern Africa is discovering that the rest of the continent is Francophone ... and that they will have to learn French to come to terms with it," said French Cooperation Minister Jacques Godfrain in a recent interview.

Both US and French leaders have also targeted the defense of commercial interests as a priority of national policy, and Mideast arms contracts and oil interests have figured in this rivalry.

Since his election in 1995, President Chirac has aimed to restore France's stature in the Arab world. During a three-day visit to Israel, Chirac called for the creation of a Palestinian state, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon, and the restoration of the Golan Heights to Syria.

"The friendship of France with all the states of the region is a support for Israel and for peace.... France can and must play her role in the region," said Chirac in Haifa, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected French participation in peace negotiations.

In Ramallah on Wednesday, Chirac told Palestinian lawmakers that France was in a better position than the US to break the deadlock in the peace process and rebuild trust between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Chirac visit, preceded by a series of diplomatic glitches, veered close to fiasco on Tuesday, as the French president reacted in anger to tight Israeli security measures, which he called "a provocation." The conservative French daily Le Figaro described the incident as a "humiliation without precedent" to the French president. After a public apology from Mr. Netanyahu, Chirac called the matter closed.

A role in the Middle East

But despite the tensions during this visit, French officials insist that France has a crucial role in the peace process.