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France Welcomes Tone of Rice Speech but Differences Remain

  • Roger Wilkison

French officials and news media have welcomed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Paris and her call for a new chapter in U.S.-European relations after ties were strained over France's opposition to the Iraq War. But, the improvement in trans-Atlantic atmospherics does not mean that deep seated differences between Washington and Paris have been overcome.

It was only 18 months ago that Ms. Rice allegedly uttered the dictum "punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia", referring to the three major opponents of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier appeared to signal at a joint news conference with Ms. Rice Tuesday in Paris that that remark has now been forgiven, if not forgotten.

After all, President Bush has been elected to another four years in office. Ms. Rice is now America's top diplomat. And U.S.-organized elections in Iraq have turned out to be more successful than the French expected. So, as one French diplomat puts it, France sees no alternative but to adapt to the new reality.

When Ms. Rice Tuesday offered an olive branch to Europe, and to France in particular, saying that the trans-Atlantic allies had an unprecedented opportunity to renew their partnership in facing the challenges of the future, Mr. Barnier responded by saying that France, too, wants to look toward the future and not the past. But, he says France must be treated as an equal partner.

"We're allies. I also think that alliance is not allegiance," he said. "And we have reasons to talk to each other and to listen to each other more, respecting the convictions of each one of us."

The conservative French daily Le Figaro welcomed Ms. Rice's gesture in reaching out to France and praised her speech's emphasis on what it calls "interconnected values and a shared future." It says the continuation of the Paris-Washington quarrel could only have brought more problems for both Europe and the United States.

The left-wing daily Liberation is more cautious, saying France should not doubt President Bush's desire to improve relations with Europe. But it wonders whether Mr. Bush is prepared to really consult and act in concert with his allies or whether he is making what it calls a tactical adjustment born out of Washington's difficulties in Iraq.

One of France's leading commentators on trans-Atlantic relations, Dominique Moisi, says that, despite lingering differences, what has changed as the second Bush administration gets under way, is the tone in both Paris and Washington.

He says there is a pragmatic, realistic calculation that the war of words between the two capitals went too far. And although neither side has changed its fundamental view of the world, both have decided for the moment to turn the page and look toward the future.

The challenge of reforging a relationship of trust is likely to be tested in the weeks and months ahead by two major issues: negotiations between Europe's Big Three - Britain, France and Germany - and Iran, aimed at ending Iran's suspected nuclear arms program, and the European Union's decision to end its ban on arms sales to China.

Washington has rejected the EU's call for the United States to give full support to the negotiations with Iran, and the Europeans have rebuffed U.S. pleas not to lift the EU arms embargo on China.

But the French seem genuinely pleased with Ms. Rice's commitment to involve the Bush administration more actively in the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. France, and Europe in general, see a strong U.S. role in Middle East peacemaking as the key to rebuilding the trans-Atlantic relationship.

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