Franco-US ties far from mended

At a G-8 summit this weekend, Bush and Chirac will meet for the first time since their rift over Iraq.

In an exclusive boutique in Paris' chic Saint Sulpice quarter, an elegant American tourist browses. He inquires about a garment or two, reflects a bit, but leaves the shop empty-handed.

Then the muttering starts. "It's just so American," says one shop assistant, "the fake tan, the chemical face lift."

"You can tell he uses Viagra as well," says a second, to a chorus of giggles.

"That's America for you."

Parisian retailers are not known for their charm. But this little outburst seems particularly low and spiteful - yet it is not exactly unexpected, given the current tone of Franco-US exchanges.

The two countries are mired in their worst diplomatic row for decades, and this time it's personal. Even by the standards of a long history of squabbling, the feud over the Iraq war has sent relations between the two supposed allies to new, icy depths.

This weekend, French President Jacques Chirac and US leader George Bush meet for the first time since the sniping began, when Bush travels to France for the summit - a yearly meeting of the world's wealthiest nations. Few are expecting the two to mend fences immediately, particularly with a summit agenda packed with contentious issues such as the Middle East road map, economic woes, and aid to developing countries.

Mr. Chirac is hardly likely to congratulate the conquering hero on his victory in Iraq. "A war that lacks legitimacy does not acquire legitimacy just because it has been won," Chirac said this week.

"As long as Jacques Chirac is in power, as long as George W. Bush is in power, I don't think relations will thaw at the government level," says André Kaspi, a professor of US history at the Sorbonne.

François Heisbourg, head of France's Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique (FRS), says the rift is "the worst crisis that has happened since the two countries were in an alliance." While Iraq was the trigger, "there are deeper factors behind it," he says, such as "the deep-felt antipathy towards what the French people and leadership see as US hegemony" and "the fact that there is no mutual confidence between the political leaders of the two countries."

The feud erupted in mid-January when France balked at US-British efforts to gain UN backing for military force against Iraq. France railed against US unilateralism, with Chirac vowing personally to cast his country's veto. President Bush then bypassed the UN process, launching the war and making it clear that Chirac would not be welcome at his Texas ranch any time soon.

The US and France have long been volatile partners, divided at times during the past half-century over issues including the Suez crisis, Vietnam, and the role of NATO. But several aspects of the current rift are different, analysts say.

Previous disagreements took place against the backdrop of the Cold War. For 50 years after World War II, Europe, with France at the heart, was a key priority for US foreign policy. Bilateral disputes seemed trivial compared with the Soviet threat, and both sides pulled together in the face of a common external enemy. That has all changed now.

"I am not sure that for the US, Europe is still the priority as it was during the cold war," says Kaspi. "Now, the priority is the Middle East."

The priority is also the war against terrorism, which could theoretically help unite the two antagonists. But even here, there is a feeling on the US side that France is not an essential ally.

"They do have a massive degree of shared interest, particularly on the war on terrorism," notes Jeremy Shapiro, a specialist on French-US relations at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But there doesn't seem to be the recognition on the US side that the French relationship is needed. Desired, sure, but needed, no."

Some conciliatory efforts have recently been made. France finally supported a UN resolution giving the US-British force a mandate to run Iraq. And last week, top diplomats Colin Powell and Dominique de Villepin were all smiles in Paris, the grimaces and rancor of February largely forgotten.

Even so, Powell noted: "Does it mean that the disagreements of the past are simpy totally forgotten? No."

This prolonged and public feud has percolated through to the populations at large. Americans are laughing at the latest anti-French jokes, while a French theater is staging a savage satire on the US leadership entitled "George W. Bush ou le triste cowboy de Dieu" (George W. Bush or God's sad cowboy).

French polls show just 6 percent admire the US; 82 percent think the world is a more dangerous place than before the Iraq war, while 87 percent think that the US is trigger-happy.

From the US side, one survey suggested that more than 40 percent of Americans were less likely to buy French products because of the spat.

But a full-scale backlash in trade relations between the two countries is considered unlikely.

With France among the top 10 US trading partners, observers have noted that trying to use trade to settle scores would be self-defeating.

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