A new romance between US and France

The two countries are cooperating on Iran, Lebanon, and the global use of nuclear power.

Forget "freedom fries," America's favorite food is proudly accompanied by French fries once again. Drop the boycott of French brie and Perrier, that's so 2003 geopolitics. And the next time you hear "Jacques Chirac," replace the sneer with a smile.

The United States' oldest ally is back in America's good graces - even, and perhaps especially, at the White House.

Indeed, as the United Nations Security Council takes up Iran's nuclear program this week, the US and France will be standing side by side in opposition to any leniency for the Tehran regime, a far cry from the bitter antagonism over Iraq that bloomed in the same venue three years ago.

Today, relations improved to the point where some French officials even speak of a "love affair" between the two old allies. Citing longstanding and effective coordination on international terrorism, they say cooperation extends to a growing list of issues, ranging from Iran and Lebanon to global expansion of the use of nuclear power as a way to cut the use of fossil fuels.

Sounding a bit more Gaullist, France's ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, speaks of "a very constructive relationship in which we address a number of important issues with converging views to reach common objectives."

That reflects the interests-based diplomacy that is driving both capitals as they bury the past to draw closer, experts say.

"Cardinal Richelieu invented realpolitik, and what we see the French doing is playing the diplomatic game based on their interests and on how things in today's world can get done," says John Hulsman, fellow in European issues at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Whereas the French once counted on the European Union as their vehicle to maintain global power status, he adds, "They see the EU mattering less and less. That's not going to be their ticket to diplomatic relevance and they know it, so they've reassessed relations with the sole superpower."

The result has been surprisingly like-minded approaches to Iran and Lebanon. Some observers claim the US and France have fallen into playing a classic good-cop-bad-cop duo in relations with Iran or with Syria over Lebanon.

But Mr. Hulsman says that in some ways the French have been tougher on Iran than the US - French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy has openly accused the Iranians of lying about their nuclear intentions. Hulsman describes the approach to Lebanon more as a "hand-in-glove" operation, with France teaming its longer history and deeper contacts there with America's diplomatic heft.

The Franco-American warming has its roots in President Bush's decision to make 2005 his "year of diplomacy" and to repair useful alliances ruptured by the war in Iraq. When Bush traveled to Europe in February 2005, he visited NATO and the European Union, but the first item on his agenda was a private dinner with Mr. Chirac.

At that dinner, both leaders made a conscious decision to put the Iraq falling-out behind them, officials from both countries say. Bush might still have a special relationship with Britain's Tony Blair, but the White House wagered that restored ties to France would be fruitful internationally.

Since then, the national security advisers of both leaders - Stephen Hadley for Bush and Maurice Gourdault-Montagne for Chirac - have met regularly, with no-daylight positions on key international issues being one result.

Still, some French experts say that, temptations to flirt with clever conclusions about a "springtime in Paris and Washington" aside, no one should exaggerate the warmer ties or rule out potentially choppy patches on the horizon.

"Yes, we're getting on very well at the moment, but that doesn't mean basic differences won't resurface," says Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Center on the United States in Paris. For right now any "love affair" metaphors should be replaced with dispassionate but more realistic imagery of mutual interests, he says.

"I don't think the [Bush-Chirac] relationship is particularly warm," says Mr. Parmentier, "but the fact is that the administration in Washington is not at all in the same place in terms of its diplomatic approach as it was" in the first term. "The Americans realize that France has useful experience in some of the moment's important places," he adds, "and for us it makes no sense not to work with the Americans when we can."

Despite what looks like seeing eye-to-eye on Iran right now, the French expert says that could quickly change. "If the Bush administration talks about sanctions and isolating Iran, I don't think you'll see France going for that," Parmentier says. "We see a very unpopular leadership [in Tehran] that we don't want to provide with a scapegoat for its difficulties. The US has tried that for a long time with Cuba and Castro," he adds, "and it doesn't work."

That may be, but Hulsman says Iran's nuclear ambitions pose a challenge to France's global leadership role, explaining why to this point it is reading off the same page as Washington.

"The French have always invoked the nuclear card as a symbol of and indeed a tangible factor in their place as a global power," he says. "But if the club of nuclear powers continues to grow it would mean a dilution of French power, and they don't want that."

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