Behind US-France rift: their roles in world

French challenge to Washington at UN is about preemptive doctrine as much as Iraq.

With the US Congress now firmly behind President Bush, the quest for support to take on Iraq shifts to the international arena and the United Nations. And there, in a body where not all 191 members are created equal, much of the US effort to forge a common purpose will focus on France.

In a foretaste of what's to come, President Bush last week telephoned his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac, to lay the groundwork for what promises to be days, if not weeks, of hard-nosed negotiations between the world's sole superpower and a country thought by many to have diplomatic ambitions far surpassing its resources and power.

For France, this diplomatic pas de deux is as much about the future workings of the international system – and America's place in it – as it is about Iraq's threat to international security, officials and analysts say. The main French concern is the US attempt to forge a new right to pre-emptive action.

"France, like a number of other countries, is pretty alarmed at the prospect of a superpower that can take military action anywhere it wants without restraint, so for them the focus becomes influencing that power as much as anything else," says Paul Saunders, director of the Nixon Center, a policy-study center here. "For the French, the Security Council is the last line of defense."

Three other countries besides the US and France are permanent members of the UN Security Council and have veto power over Security Council resolutions – the United Kingdom, Russia, and China. But it is France that is most clearly stumping America's drive for international unity against Iraq.

The resolution fight

The US, backed by Britain, wants a tough Security Council resolution that contains both unfettered weapons inspections and if the Iraqis hinder full inspections, as in the past, the threat of war. France, backed by Russia, wants two resolutions – the first authorizing a tough inspections regime. Only a second, eventual resolution would authorize military intervention if the Iraqis failed to abide by the first.

The two-step resolution would address France's real concerns about Iraq, which it shares with the US, but also those about what it sees as an America prone to a pistol-packing diplomacy. "For the French, this is about America and its relations with them and the world," says a senior European diplomat in Washington.

France sees the Bush administration snubbing other global organizations – such as the International Criminal Court, or the Kyoto Protocol on climate change – and they seize upon the Security Council as the last best hope for reining in the US juggernaut.

"The French, like most Europeans, don't want to give carte blanche to the Americans," says Francois Heisbourg, director of the Institute for Strategic Research in Paris.

The situation creates a "high degree of tension" between the US and its oldest ally, Mr. Saunders says, and places Paris on a delicate tightrope. "On the one hand, the French want to use the Security Council to have some influence over US policy, but at the same time they really don't want to be so obdurate towards American concerns that the Bush administration is persuaded to go outside the UN."

For the French government, use of the Security Council veto over US action in Iraq would actually constitute defeat for both France and the international system in that it would free the US to act largely alone in a key region.

Room for a compromise?

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin summed up his nation's concerns about this last week in a response to a member of the National Assembly who said France should veto any resolution authorizing use of force by an "intimidating" US. "If France waives the veto," Mr. de Villepin said, "it will deprive us of influence and the capacity to be part of the international game."

US officials – most clearly those closest to the position of Secretary of State Colin Powell – believe a compromise will be found, reflecting the importance that both the US and France put on a show of unity in the Security Council. But others say the outcome will depend not so much on the French, but on whether the Bush administration ultimately decides that working within the international framework is more important than a path to war.

"This is a tricky situation, [because while] the French have been careful not to close off any options, the Americans haven't yet made clear who is running things on their side," says Mr. Heisbourg. Citing a continuing split in Washington between the "forget-inspections-and-go-to war" forces and those who want to give a chance to inspections and work with the international community, Heisbourg says: "We don't know yet if Bush is going to go with the Cheney government [referring to Vice-President Dick Cheney] or the Powell government."

French ponder broad interests

The French are also taking a broader view than focusing solely on their relations with the US. Among France's other interests are its economic ties to the region, its historic role in the Middle East, and its rather un-European recognition of the role of military might in the world today. Paris clearly wants to safeguard its commercial dealings with Baghdad and the Arab world. It also wants to be involved in any post-Hussein planning for Iraq.

"Who's going to be influencing events in the Middle East in the future, that's key for France," says the diplomat. "They are one of the few countries that can contribute to a military operation in Iraq or anywhere, and they want the US [to be] mindful of that. But they also don't want to look back some day and say [of this crisis], that was when the US was left on its own in the Middle East."

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