French or Foe? Tensions With Oldest US Ally

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

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.

"We are not defending our own role, but the peace process," said a French official in Paris. "The US gives $20 million a year to the Palestinians, Europe gives $500 million. Europeans won't continue to pay without a political role as well."

"Should terrorist violence break out, as it did last spring, we could again be helpful," the official adds. French diplomats say that their contacts with Iran helped defuse violence in Israel last March, after a series of suicide bombings in Israel. Hamas, the Palestinian group that claimed responsibility for the bombings, is backed by Tehran.

Palestinian officials welcomed words of support from the French president, but criticized France for not backing up its words with more economic support. France's "economic aid is not at the same level as its political support. France contributes 20 percent of European aid ... but there is a gulf between its Foreign Affairs ministry and its Finance ministry," said Nabil Shaath, minister of international cooperation for the Palestinian Authority, speaking to French journalists Tuesday.

US-French rivalries are less in evidence in Africa, where the US has maintained a much lower profile. But developing commercial rivalries between US and French firms are closely watched in the French news media. The French business daily Les Echos interprets the US push for an all-African peacekeeping force in Africa as "preparing for the arrival of their businessmen," and chides French businesses for not defending traditional French markets.

For example, this month the Congo, a former French colony, designated an American phone company, Atlantic Tele Network, to take over the nation's telecom services, in the absence of a bid from France Telecom.

France's unilateral devaluation of its common currency with former French colonies in 1994 ended the protected status of French businesses in Africa. Recent French legislation to limit immigration and clamp down on illegals also threatens the social exchanges that have been a main source of French influence.

NATO negotiations

Both French and American diplomats insist that such frictions can be overcome.

"Both parties are clearly irritated with each other: France is irritated at its own limitations when it wants to play a bigger role; the US, at the lack of success of its Mideast policies. But both are also aware that they can only go so far in opposition to each other," says Dominique Moisi, of the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations.

"On basic issues, such as NATO, there has been a rapprochement, and this is of far greater importance than today's tensions. Compromise has been reached on much more difficult issues before," he says.

France's bid to head up NATO's Southern Command will be the next test of the resilience of US-French relations. American officials privately say that the issue of greater French visibility in the alliance can be resolved politically, without handing over the Southern Command.

"France wants to take credit for Europeanizing NATO, at a time when it is already largely European," said an American official, on condition of anonymity. "This led Chirac to insist on a high-profile command. It may take some creative packaging, but we have to find ways to help France meet this visibility issue."

Germany's defense minister supports the French bid, but there is considerable opposition within the German parliament among members who fear that a backlash in the US Congress over such an appointment would threaten America's military commitment to Europe.

"The issue of the Southern Command is a 'Bonfire of the Vanities' for the French to get visibility within NATO. But even if they get it, Europe is still highly dependent on US capabilities," says Franz-Josef Meiers, a research fellow at the Bonn-based German Society for Foreign Policy, a private think tank.

"Europeans are very eager to get commitment of US forces to follow on in Bosnia," he adds.

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