French opinion on war shifts

Natalie Lavarra is having second thoughts about her position on the Iraq war.

"I still think it was right of [French President Jacques] Chirac to say no to the war," says the secretary at a French pharmaceutical company in Paris. "But when I saw how happy the Iraqis were that Saddam was gone, I had to ask myself whether we didn't perhaps make a mistake."

This sentiment reflects a growing uneasiness in France about Mr. Chirac's fierce opposition to the American-led campaign. Until a week ago, finding anyone here who disagreed with the government's position on the war was as likely as discovering oil in the heart of Paris.

But since the symbolic fall of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and scenes of cheering Iraqis celebrating their liberty, signs have emerged that the antiwar sentiment here is softening.

To be sure, the French media are still largely defending Chirac's position. But more and more ordinary people are lashing out at him for what they now see as a political faux pas.

"Chirac was wrong to say no to the war," says bartender Georges Chabat. "The Iraqi people wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein."

Dominique Moisi, senior adviser for the French Institute of International Relations, confirms that public opinion in France is in the process of changing.

"Since they saw the rapid fall of Saddam's empire, the French are asking themselves if they hadn't perhaps been wrong in making themselves irrelevant to the course of history," he says.

Until three weeks ago, 84 percent of the French were opposed to the war. Last week only 55 percent were still of the same opinion, according to a poll in the French Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.

In the run-up to the war, Chirac's staunch resistance to the US-led military invasion boosted his popularity to an all-time high. Paris was the scene of some of the biggest antiwar rallies around the world, and Chirac, who had been looking for a way to assert his own and his country's political relevance in a post-cold -Europe, warmed to the role of international champion of peace. Faced with serious economic and social problems at home, he jumped at a chance to distract attention from domestic problems and enhance his world image.

The president was also seen by some as attempting to style himself as "the Arabic world's best friend in the West," and to pacify France's Muslim community, which makes up 10 percent of the country's population.

But now Chirac finds himself in an unenviable diplomatic position. In a matter of days his role changed from that of an international hero walking the moral high ground to what appears to be a sulking lone voice, fighting not to be excluded from sharing in the spoils of the war.

Mr. Moisi believes France will pay a "very real" price in political diplomatic terms over its antiwar stance. Already, France is finding itself rather isolated in Europe. Jean-Louis Bourlanges, a member of the European Parliament, called the French position a "political Waterloo" for Chirac in a column in Le Figaro, a French daily newspaper.

The result, says Alain Madelin, a Conservative politician who opposed France's official policy on the war from the start, is that Chirac has been presented as Saddam Hussein's best friend.

"The Iraqis feel today they had been liberated without - and even against - the will of France," he says.

To add insult to injury, Chirac has deeply offended the 10 Eastern European countries signing accession treaties to the European Union in Athens, Greece, last week, all of which supported the US-led war in Iraq. In a stinging reproach in February, Chirac warned that they would regret their support for President Bush.

"There is a still lot of anger at the French arrogance," a Polish diplomat told a French paper at the conference last week.

The symbolic gathering, which marked the EU's largest expansion ever, was supposed to be an impressive show of unity of an integrated Europe, proud of having put past differences behind them. Instead it threatened to become an embarrassing display of division. Ultimately, EU leaders released a joint statement calling for a "central role" for the UN in the future of Iraq.

Chirac, who still scores 65 percent in popularity ratings after the war, appears unlikely to suffer any serious political setbacks at home. "The impact on his career will be very little," says Moisi, "There are no elections in France in the near future and people will forget quickly."

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