French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier arrives in Washington Wednesday for a one-day visit that underscores a new effort to improve transatlantic ties, since the re-election of President Bush. A number of differences remain.
Mr. Barnier's 24-hour visit to Washington marks his first official trip for bilateral talks with U.S. officials since being named France's top envoy in March. The visit is being billed as a chance to say good-bye to outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and hello to Mr. Powell's successor, Condoleezza Rice.
But analysts such as Bruno Tertrais, a researcher at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, believe Mr. Barnier's visit has another aim as well. "I think the first message that will be conveyed by Barnier during his trip is that we understand that the American people have spoken, and were willing to work with the President [Bush]. Our strategy is not to be an obstacle to American foreign policy even though we have our disagreements," he said. "We have enough common interests that we need to work together and we are ready to work together and improve our relations."
Ties between the United States and France reached a low point during last year's U.S.-led war in Iraq, which Paris staunchly opposed. But in recent months, there have been signs of warming relations, not only with France, but with other European opponents to the war.
In a concession to the United States last month, France and other Paris Club creditors agreed to cancel 80-percent of the debt Iraq owed them. Paris and Washington have also collaborated in other matters, like a joint United Nations resolution demanding the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.
And officials say that bilateral cooperation in areas such as NATO operations in Afghanistan or the war against terrorism has always been good, despite diplomatic differences on Iraq.
With President Bush's re-election last month, some experts say, France and other European countries now want to turn a fresh page in their transatlantic dialogue with the United States.
Pap Ndiaye, an analyst of U.S.-French relations at the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes de Sciences Sociales, in Paris, compares low-key Mr. Barnier to former French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, who enraged Washington with his passionate, anti-Iraq war speeches. Clearly Michel Barnier represents the hope for a new start, even if some of the most contested matters between France and the U.S. are still at stake," he said.
Those differences range from ways to fight global warming to how to deal with Iran. The Bush administration remains skeptical on whether European diplomacy can get Tehran to abandon its alleged nuclear weapons program.
And last week, Secretary of State Powell criticized France and several other European nations for refusing to participate in a NATO-led training mission in Iraq.