French disconnection

March 11, 2003|By Patrick Chamorel

WASHINGTON - Angela Merkel, the leader of Germany's opposition Christian Democrats, recently challenged Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's inflexible position on war with Iraq and expressed solidarity with the United States.

In France, the political class is more united against war in Iraq because President Jacques Chirac, a center-right politician, has rallied the left in opposing U.S. policy. Result: The main critics of Mr. Chirac's policy are likely to be found in his own camp, expressing their disagreements privately rather than publicly. Most are anti-socialists and anti-pacifists who value better trans-Atlantic relations and greater European unity.

Like myself, a Frenchman living in the United States, these natural Chirac supporters wonder why a center-right politician whose government is finally pursuing sensible economic and law-and-order policies at home would choose such a high profile and confrontational path to express disagreement with the United States on Iraq.

Even though he personally admires the United States and the military, Mr. Chirac is viewed as the leader of the anti-U.S. coalition and pacifist movement, and he seems to enjoy it. Even the late Socialist President FranM-gois Mitterrand committed French troops to the 1991 Persian Gulf war, forcing his own defense minister to resign.

It didn't have to be this way.

After his re-election last spring, Mr. Chirac set out to improve ailing Franco-American relations. The early efforts of Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin marked a welcome contrast from his Socialist predecessor, Hubert Vedrine, whose main achievement had been to alienate both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

But the re-election of Mr. Schroeder, who campaigned against war with Iraq, changed the landscape.

Weakened by a narrow victory and isolation by the United States, Mr. Schroeder turned to a Chirac strengthened by a landslide election victory and the end of a self-inflicted and uncomfortable cohabitation with his Socialist foes. Both struck compromises on highly divisive European Union issues such as agriculture, enlargement, institutions and Turkey's accession, leading to a momentous celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Franco-German reconciliation treaty on Jan. 22.

Such dynamics prevented France from leaving Germany isolated on Iraq. This choice made Mr. Chirac's goal of improving relations with the United States more difficult.

It came to a head when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, after a U.N. Security Council ministerial meeting at the end of January, felt betrayed by Mr. de Villepin's threat to use France's veto. Mr. Powell, who with British Prime Minister Tony Blair convinced the Bush administration to go the U.N. route on Iraq, concluded he had no option other than rallying the administration's hawks.

In Europe, Mr. Blair and the Bush administration successfully exploited the resentment created by the Franco-German rapprochement among pro-U.S. leaders in Italy, Spain and Eastern Europe. Mr. Schroeder and Mr. Chirac might find comfort in the worldwide peace demonstrations - and Mr. Chirac, by contrast with Mr. Schroeder, in rising opinion polls at home - but the two European allies underestimated the price they would have to pay in the United States and Europe.

Iraq was arguably the wrong priority for the United States to pursue. A more straightforward focus on terrorism would have rallied all Europeans to an unambiguous and worthwhile cause following 9/11, despite the Bush administration's earlier alienation of its allies.

Nevertheless, Iraq was the wrong issue for France and Germany to take sides on after Mr. Schroeder's anti-war campaign pledge.

France doesn't have the excuse of being a pacifist country and has veto power on the Security Council. Germany has much to lose in America by siding with France against the United States.

The two leaders had a legitimate case to make to the United States about the risks of war exceeding its benefits. They could even have told the United States they would rather abstain from a vote on war at the Security Council. Instead, they took the high road to oppose the United States, giving the misleading impression of protecting Saddam Hussein. The U.N. inspections now only appear as a tactic to avoid war, not a means to disarm Iraq.

A French veto is conceivable only if Russia and possibly China go along. A compromise around a second U.N. resolution would be the best outcome by far.

The relationship of France and Germany with the United States and the rest of Europe has been damaged severely, and so has the image of Franco-German ties.

The leaders of France and Germany must ensure that the precious relationship between their two countries does not undermine the trans-Atlantic relationship and intra-European equilibrium. Otherwise, they would wind up serving the interests of those in Europe and the United States who are the traditional foes of the Franco-German alliance.

Today, if I could, I'd vote for Angela Merkel.

Patrick Chamorel, an adjunct professor of political science at George Washington University, is a former French government official and a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

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