With surprise visit, France changes its tack on Iraq

The French foreign minister's visit to Baghdad this week marks a thaw in France-US relations.

Partly to restore strained ties with ally America, and partly to deal itself into the strategic game on Iraq, France is opening a new chapter in the Persian Gulf.

In the European nation most publicly opposed to the Iraq war, media reaction in Paris on both the left and right appears to support new French offers to mediate among Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish factions – whose strife is paralyzing Iraq's day-to-day governance.

The offers were put forward by Bernard Kouchner, whose surprise visit to Baghdad this week was the first by a French foreign minister since 1988. They signal a significant change in France's tack on Iraq, offering the kind of diplomacy France used to inspire dialogue among ethnic and religious factions in Lebanon. They also come amid warmer US-French ties under President Nicolas Sarkozy, who vacationed in New Hampshire this month.

France's sudden shift on Iraq "is almost as spectacular as the refusal of France to take part in the American intervention in Iraq," noted the left French daily Le Monde. "It is time to stop lecturing the Americans about their errors and start contributing to a solution."

In Baghdad Monday, Kouchner said "the Americans will not be able to get out of difficulty [in Iraq] alone," adding that "Europe must play a role ... and I hope that other foreign ministers will come and visit Iraq." Kouchner, a popular left-wing politician in Sarkozy's right-wing government, said after his visit that "the Americans in Iraq seem unable to see what surrounds them," speaking of the ever-more complex and violent interethnic conflict.

Foreign minister's credentials a plus

Analysts here say that a central factor in France's ability to quickly enter the Iraq fray is Kouchner's own credentials. He developed policies to protect Kurds from Saddam Hussein's army after the first Gulf War, has close relations with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and played a pioneering role in the concept of "humanitarian intervention" in the 1990s.

Kouchner, who cofounded the Paris-based "Doctors Without Borders," is also seen as unconnected to French business and political circles that were closely involved with Mr. Hussein.

While a proactive position on Iraq by Paris is a significant step in Mr. Sarkozy's professed design to regain French traction in international affairs, the French role is purely diplomatic. No troops, major resources, or significant political capital are being committed. As such, the French public has not reacted sharply pro or con to news of a modest role in Iraq.

"This is a symbolically important indicator that the French want to be a positive presence rather than a spoiler. But no hard questions are [on the table]," says François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Studies in Paris. "If Sarkozy said he was sending 10,000 troops, people would go to the streets. But Kouchner, who is extremely popular, has gone to Iraq to signal that France will help if help is called for, and blessed are the peacemakers. Who can think badly of such positioning?"

US-France diplomacy suffered considerably after former President Jacques Chirac tried to create an international consensus against the US-led invasion of Iraq. French initiatives after 2003 were often blocked by the White House, and French influence in Europe itself was hamstrung by France's "no" vote on an EU constitution.

Sarkozy's diplomacy

Since being elected president in May on promises to reassert France's proud internationalist tradition, Sarkozy has conducted an astounding array of diplomatic initiatives. He put France squarely into the effort to create a European constitution, helped Libya end its isolation by brokering a deal to release six Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, held a conference on Darfur with Chinese and American envoys, got a Frenchman named to head the IMF, continued France's central role in Lebanon, is taking a role on Kosovo independence, and has worked ardently to unfreeze US-French relations.

"We are clearly turning a page here ... it is a new chapter in French-American relations," the No. 2 US diplomat in Paris, Mark Pekala, told cable TV network France 24 earlier this month.

Commenting on an Iraq role for France, the rightist Paris daily Le Figaro argued on Aug. 21 that "The US is looking for a solution ... It is time to show that France, alongside Europe, is available."

Iraqi President Talabani, however, said he would prefer French investment and reconstruction help over diplomacy.

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