PARIS — FRANCE'S last-minute solo attempt before the U.N. Security Council at Persian Gulf diplomacy came as no surprise here. President Francois Mitterrand has been signaling something of the sort for weeks, saying he reserved the right to "independent" action.
But the point had little to do with the crisis and any attempt to avert war. It was a mixture of muddled policy, trying to have it both ways, ingrained cynicism, Gaullist-style posturing and domestic politics.
Domestically, Mitterrand is affected by a new wave of anti-Americanism emanating from an unusual combination of the left, and not only the communists, and part of the right. Both have decried the prospect of war and what they consider weak-kneed submission to America's will. Some critics make President Bush and Saddam Hussein equivalent, and some argue that Bush is mainly to blame. France, they say, should show its "difference."
Up to the last minute, Foreign Minister Roland Dumas was waiting to fly to Baghdad, to prove that Mitterrand would not give up even after the admitted failures of others. Saddam never answered the French proposal, which was sent to him without the knowledge of France's allies, disdaining even to receive Paris's envoy.
France has long claimed "privileged relations" with Iraq, earned by massive supplies of advanced arms and credits for some 15 years. The press still likes to quote Baghdad bazaar merchants saying, "We trust France more than anybody." Whatever Saddam does to the French and everybody else, the French believe this because they feel they ought to be liked best.
Not everybody is on the line. A few senior journalists have told me recently that they were ashamed by what France was doing, and many other politicians and commentators have expressed strong distaste. But there have been no political polemics and little public reminder of the French role -- second only to Moscow's -- in building Iraq's arsenal. That is because all governments have sustained the policy, established by Premier Jacques Chirac under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, of shoveling weapons to Iraq.
From the beginning of the crisis, France dithered, making appropriate noises of shocked disapproval and suggesting ways "saving face" for Saddam Hussein. The first French gesture of armed participation was to send the carrier Clemenceau with a great departure ceremony -- and no planes, only helicopters.
Meanwhile, Mitterrand's defense minister, Jean-Louis Chevenement, made clear his disagreement about acting against Saddam. He had been a leader of the Franco-Iraqi friendship society and told people he admired Saddam because he "is secular and a socialist." Anyplace else, he would have been fired. He was only quietly reminded of his duty and kept on, free to say a week ago that war could be avoided if Bush would make "a very little gesture" of promising a conference on Israel.
Nobody informed here really believes Saddam would pull out of Kuwait in return for such a promise. But Paris likes to feel it's showing good will for the Arab cause and earning gratitude. Mitterrand himself has said he can't be accused of "linkage" on a Middle East conference; he favored it before the crisis and will afterward, so Kuwait makes no difference.
Being accused of toadying to the United States is considered a political problem not only between parties but within Mitterrand's Socialists, still more feared than any charge of toadying to aggressive dictators. National interests can be defended by America, but are to be asserted against it.
Then why not cravenly opt out? No way, Mitterrand says. France wants to be in at the settlement, so it must take part in the action. "It's the responsibility of a permanent member of the Security Council," he said. "France is a great power."
Talk of Germany and Japan becoming permanent members jellied marrow here, and Mitterrand is still smarting from criticism of his equivocal, minor role in the diplomacy of German unity. But he had it closer to right earlier this year when he said France was "a middle power." He might have added "middling reliable, middling devious, middling hocus-pocus."