France, in corner, lacking good exit

But report by inspectors today at U.N. could allow Chirac to support Iraq war

February 14, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PARIS - In the diplomatic maneuvering over Iraq, the actions of France have been strongly similar to its maneuvering before the Persian Gulf war in 1991, when Paris said war was a bad idea, offered counterproposals and threatened to stand apart from the United States in any military action. Then France signed on to the war.

This time, though, the likelihood of France joining the United States seems more remote each day, and reports from the two chief United Nations weapons inspectors today to the Security Council could be a deciding factor on whether French President Jacques Chirac will ultimately support a war.

France's rhetoric has not precluded the country from joining the United States, unlike the positions taken by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Chirac's statements have swung from preparing his country to join the United States to defiance over beginning the planning for defensive preparations.

France's political maneuvering is not simply a flexing of muscles or a bargaining stance, diplomats, academics and political scientists say, but a genuine effort to prevent, or at least delay, a war with Iraq.

If Chirac desires a "good exit," as political scientist Dominique Reynie puts it, he shows no sign of a desperate search for one.

"He is now on the road to where there is almost no return," said Reynie, a professor at the prestigious Institute of Political Sciences here. "The longer we go without agreeing, the more difficult it gets to agree. And we may be past the point where an agreement is possible. Joining the United States will be very difficult for Chirac, if he even wants to join."

The only practical exit, Reynie said, could be created by the U.N. arms inspectors. In the unlikely scenario that Hans Blix, the chief U.N. inspector, were to say today that Iraqi cooperation has been so poor that further inspections would probably be fruitless - reports indicate that he will give a mixed review - Chirac could join the United States. Otherwise, Reynie said, the French president will have a tough time changing course.

One reason is that anti-war sentiment has solidified. After Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's presentation to the Security Council last week, opinion polls in France found that more than 75 percent of those surveyed oppose a war against Iraq.

Chirac's high popularity ratings are another factor. They have risen from 52 percent last summer to 65 percent, mostly attributed to his stance on the war, said Bruno Jeanbard, a political analyst for CSA, France's largest polling agency.

"What would change people's minds - and then maybe Chirac's mind - is what would come from the United Nations, not the United States," Jean- bard said. "Without the inspectors saying something very strong, Chirac isn't very likely to change his mind. It would be a political disaster for him."

The French president has taken politically unpopular stands in the past. In 1995, facing condemnation from the United Nations and opposition from more than 60 percent of French voters, he ordered nuclear tests in the Pacific, stating: "You only have to look back at 1935. ... There were people then who were against France arming itself, and look what happened."

That was when France's economy was strong, helping push his approval ratings to near 70 percent. Now, Chirac has little else than opposing the United States contributing to his popularity. Like many economies in Europe, France's is hurting, with unemployment approaching 10 percent, among the highest in Western Europe.

"The importance of politics within France should not be underestimated," said Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Center on the United States, in Paris. "George Bush has politics at home. So does Jacques Chirac."

But Parmentier said Chirac's stance would be the same even with less serious domestic concerns: Chirac would favor a war only if U.N. inspectors say their work has reached a dead end.

"He thinks of war as a last resort," Parmentier said. "It's obvious to him that the hard-liners in the Bush administration began with the premise that war is necessary, so he's not going to listen to them. He's going to listen to the U.N. inspectors."

France's alternative to war is to eventually triple the number of inspectors and to increase aerial surveillance flights. It proposes the permanent stationing of U.N. troops at certain sites in Iraq and a permanent inspections manager in Baghdad.

"The idea is to make sure that the present system submits the Iraqi authorities to continued pressure," according to a French document outlining the proposal, which was circulated to the Security Council this week. "Our approach is based on the need to compel Iraq to cooperate by taking the peaceful approach of intrusive inspections."

The proposal has been criticized by the Bush administration as an approach that would allow Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to delay disarmament indefinitely.

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