On Monday, as George W. Bush prepared to give a dinner for Jacques Chirac at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Brussels, Le Monde published a long 2,000-word investigative account exploring how France and the U.S. went about mending fences after their tempestuous differences over Iraq.  --  Pressing circumstances, rather than fundamental views, have forced the two leaders to look for ways to work together, it would seem....

[Translated from Le Monde (Paris)]



By Corinne Lesnes et Claire Tréan

** From Abidjan to Baghdad by way of Paris, what's beneath the new Franco-American deal **

Le Monde (Paris)
February 21, 2005


June 2004: On the eve of the sixtieth anniversary of the Allied landing in Normandy, George W. Bush, who says he appreciates it when people speak frankly to him, the way Jacques Chirac does, promised to invite his French counterpart to "come and see the cows" on his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Today, if George Bush has still not fulfilled his promise to introduce American cows to the French president, their meeting in Brussels on Monday, Feb. 21, does seem to be opening a new chapter in the relationship between the two men.

Certainly, there have already been, since the intervention in Iraq in the spring of 2003, handshakes and public smiles, and on each side they've always asserted that the disagreements of a moment have no effect on the "historic friendship between two countries." Meeting up again in Brussels thus encourages a certain feeling of "déjà vu," tinged with skepticism.

That's because it's not so easy to go from inciting "French-bashing" (in vogue these past few years in the United States) to advertised familiarity with someone who was sometimes considered, in the White House, as a traitor, or in any case as the most troublesome of the European allies. There were a few preliminary steps. The main one? The decision made in Washington to change its policy toward Europe. That implied warming up to Paris, thanks to the general review that has taken place at the beginning of the second presidential term. The Brussels dinner on Monday, Feb. 21, should thus be, this time for real, the first page of a Franco-American "new chapter."

The enveloping cordiality of Jacques Chirac is altogether capable of overcoming the disagreements of the moment and wrapping itself around the American president. If the somewhat forced jokes of the latter aren't found very amusing at the Élysée, Jacques Chirac does show that he has no dislike for the Texan side of his counterpart. "The Bush-Chirac relationship is not so bad," says a White House adviser. "They're both at ease in social situations. But as soon as they talked about Iraq, it was awful."

On the American side, they're hoping that the French president will know how to strike the right tone. "Chirac has a 'this is a subject I know all about, I've been in this business for fifty years' way about him that's annoying," an American official confides. "We have to find a way of making Bush understand that without seeming to say so." The change in attitude of one toward the other is much more due to Washington than to Paris. For France has been trying for a long time to resume mutually beneficial cooperation with Washington -- and it has succeeded, in certain arenas, with respect to many matters of common interest.

What remains is to eliminate from the relationship the outright defiance, at least, if not the mistrust, to purge the relationship of efforts to get revenge, to avoid squabbles over Iraq. The major effort that France has accepted making on the Iraqi debt is recognized today by the Americans, who have stopped demanding some military engagement. Even if the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq didn't mark the end of the story, they've helped "put reset the counter at zero" on that subject, a French diplomat notes.

What has changed is not the political convictions of the two presidents, their antagonistic conceptions of international relations. "At bottom, policies have not changed," says a French official, "it's circumstances that have changed." George Bush was reelected in November 2004 for four years. His policies were broadly endorsed by his fellow citizens, and Mr. Bush believes that. So there's no reason for him to change and no alternative except to deal with that. But the American president is not giving his policies the warlike turn they took during his first term. He intends to pursue them through other means, particularly, to judge by his recent statements, through cooperation with the European Union.

What has also changed is the Middle East situation since the death of Yasser Arafat on Nov. 11, 2004, and the need for a Euro-American consensus (for among Europeans, there is already a consensus) in order to bring the newly opened perspectives to fruition. "In the Franco-American relationship, the red circle is the Middle East," says a French diplomat. "That's the barometer that makes things tip in one direction or the other."

In parallel, the matter of Iran has increasingly become a subject of mutual preoccupation. The Europeans are trying, through diplomatic means, to get Tehran to renounce nuclear weapons. George Bush has repeated that he "encourages" this approach by the Europeans, but that he is not a part of it. According to a French expert, this distance, maintained by the United States to imply that they are not ruling out having recourse to other means against Tehran, "is mostly public relations." The European approach is, according to him, useful to the Americans, in that for the moment they have no alternative strategy, and in any case "no military option toward Iran." According to other experts, George Bush is thought to be expecting from his meetings with Europeans that they pronounce themselves willing to bring the matter to the Security Council with a view sanctions against Iran, and France is said to have indicated a willingness to do so.

On these subjects, Paris is in tune with the rest of Europe. What's more, France in recent years has taken some solo initiatives at the behest of and with the support of the United States, showing that all was not broken in this bilateral relationship, even at its worst moments. There was the Haitian affair in April 2004, an operation to force President Aristide's departure that took less than two weeks.

This "coup" was carried out through the cooperation of the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, and his American counterpart, Colin Powell, at the request of the former. But a month later, M. de Villepin left the Quay d'Orsay for the Ministry of the Interior. Did he pay the price for a desire to make peace that already existed in Paris, of which he himself was a partisan? In the United States, he had attained stardom, but it was as -- except in the State Department -- enemy number one. On the French side, they deny that his departure was demanded by the Americans, but "this is perhaps the conclusion that we have all reached on our own," says a French official.

The Côte d'Ivoire crisis in November 2004 is one of the other fields where America came to the support of France. On the ground, the U.S. ambassador in Abidjan always refused to go along with the "Up with America, down with France" game that the partisans of Ivoirian President Laurent Gbagbo were trying to bring off.

At the U.N., it is true, France had to wait for months for a Security Council decision to send U.N. peacekeeping forces to Côte d'Ivoire, which some interpret as a form of payback on the part of Washington. The French swear, on the other hand, that it was only due to budgetary problems in Congress and maintain that American support of French policies in Côte d'Ivoire has been clearly demonstrated on several occasions.

Franco-American cooperation has developed in other areas: the struggle against terrorism; the joint operation waged in Afghanistan; and, in addition, the common action undertaken at the Security Council with respect to Lebanon, which the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese businessman and former prime minister killed in Beirut on Feb. 14, has recently revived. "That goes back two years, to the disappointment that Bashar al-Assad -- the Syrian president -- has been for us," explains a French official. It was in June 2004, George Bush has said, that Jacques Chirac proposed to him the idea of a U.N. resolution calling for the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon. For their part, the Americans had been looking for months for a way to get the Security Council to act against Syria, less to defend the peace process in Lebanon than because of Damascus's support for Hezbollah (the pro-Syrian Shiite movement) and its lack of zeal against the Iraqi insurgency. The different interests of the two countries coincided and Resolution 1559, calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops, was adopted in September 2004. George Bush was then in the midst of an election campaign. On both sides there was a sort of non-aggression pact, while waiting for results.

Since the beginning of 2004, Paris has been contemplating a "reframing" of its policies with respect to Washington, which might be useful in the case either of Bush's victory or his defeat in the presidential election. The first important moment: the anniversary of the Normandy landing. Jacques Chirac organized a solemn event in June, in homage to the founding act of the Atlantic alliance. This was not without an ulterior motive: if it looked like someone was a "traitor," it would be Bush. That's what the French public thought, but not the Americans, at whom George Bush aimed most of his remarks at the press conference he held with Jacques Chirac at the Elysée. The American president was thinking only of his rendez-vous with the voters five months ahead.

Despite the French desire to refocus on the Alliance's "fundamentals," Iraq was continuing to poison the atmosphere. The American setbacks in that country at that time were taking on the appearance of a catastrophe, aggravated by the scandal of the tortures inflicted by American soldiers on Iraqi detainees, an affair made public in the American press in May 2004. The French forced themselves to refrain from saying that they had been right all along, but they continued to think -- and to say -- that the only hope of getting out of the mess was through a withdrawal of foreign forces. In June 2004, at the G8 summit at Sea Island (U.S.), then at the NATO summit in Istanbul, the French president again seemed to be an almost systematic detractor of his American counterpart.

But on Aug. 20, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, Jacques Chirac's diplomatic advisor, met Condoleezza Rice in Washington. "We had analyzed the situation early on, we wanted to send a signal," comments a high official. The Democratic candidate John Kerry was lagging in the polls, but the French wanted it known that contrary to appearances, they were not betting everything on a Democratic victory. Another important moment in the French strategy was the speech made by Jacques Chirac at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London in November, in which the president laid out his doctrine assigning an important part to a strengthening of the Atlantic alliance.

All these things, in various ways, have prepared the Feb. 21 meeting in Brussels. French officials want to believe in détente, but they are circumspect. And it's true that at some moments the crisis was a dire one. To the point where some Americans, thinking it had gone too far, tried to intercede, like Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, who has close relations both with the Elysée and with the White House. The Nouvel Observateur of Feb. 17 reported his December 2003 effort to mediate, and the misunderstanding to which it gave rise, the senator having thought he understood that Mr. Chirac was "not opposed to a military mission by NATO in Iraq."

A little later, the Pentagon excluded the companies of countries that did not participate in the coalition from Iraqi reconstruction contracts. Whether or not it was the effect of this announcement, the French president, for months, fought against any insertion of NATO in Iraq and, more generally, in what the Americans call the "Greater Middle East."

After Nov. 2, 2004, Chirac sent a letter of congratulations to George Bush, but he did not find time to call him. On Nov. 6, the White House got impatient. Dan Fried, advisor for European affairs, called Jean David Levitte, the French ambassador in Washington. "President Bush wants to call your president." With the consummate art of a diplomat, the ambassador replied: "I've just received a call from the Elysée saying the same thing." Thus ended the acrimonious period. On Feb. 1, George Bush picked up the phone to discuss with Mr. Chirac the elections that had just taken place in Iraq. The Brussels dinner was announced a few days later.

Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
Phone: 253-535-7219
Home page: http://www.plu.edu/~jensenmk/
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