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Doubts Surface in France over Opposition to Iraq War - 2003-04-15

France's months-long opposition to the war in Iraq drew almost universal support at home, and French President Jacques Chirac's popularity soared to record levels. But with the fighting all but over, doubts are growing in France over the wisdom of defying the United States.

President Chirac may take comfort in a poll published Tuesday in France's Liberation newspaper. It said 70 percent of Frenchmen and women surveyed said they approved of his performance.

Fifty-nine percent said they disapproved of the U.S.-led war on Iraq, and half of the respondents doubted France would be isolated diplomatically for opposing the conflict.

But tellingly, Mr. Chirac's approval rating has dropped four percent since March. The percentage of French opposed to the war has also declined. A weekend protest in Paris against American intervention in Iraq was far smaller than previous anti-war marches.

Now that Saddam Hussein's regime has fallen, political analyst Etienne Schweisguth says, many French are not so certain the war was a bad thing.

Mr. Schweisguth, a researcher at the Paris-based Center for the Study of French Political Life, says the French still remain skeptical. The U.S.-led coalition may have won the war, he says, but people here wonder whether it will really bring peace to Iraq.

At the same time, the conflict appears to be exacting a financial toll on the nation. French wine growers, for instance, are beginning to feel the economic bite of an informal U.S. boycott on their products.

Other businesses are worried about being left out of the potentially lucrative contracts for the post-war reconstruction of Iraq.

Questions are also growing about the country's transatlantic diplomacy.

During a parliamentary debate last week, for example, one lawmaker from Mr. Chirac's conservative UMP party warned against what he described as a creeping culture of "niet" - or no - against any U.S. policy. Another, more pointedly, suggested that Paris had mistakenly picked Washington as its enemy, rather than Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Some French media have also cautioned the government against following a confrontational diplomacy - most recently by insisting that the United Nations, not Washington, should assume interim administration of Iraq. An editorial in Le Monde called on Paris to work with Washington in finding a diplomatic solution.

Other experts, such as Philippe Moreau Defarges, Special Advisor at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris, believe the anti-war coalition, which includes Germany and Russia, may soon crumble, leaving France isolated.

"It's clear this coalition between Paris, Berlin and Moscow was really an artificial coalition," said Mr. Defarges. "It's certain that Russia and Mr. [Vladimir] Putin will want to play its own game and to reconcile with the United States. Particularly, but not only, because of Iraq and the oil contracts. Concerning Germany, it's clear the German chancellor is not a very strong man, and he will try at the end of the day to reconcile with Washington."

At the same time, Mr. Defarges says, the United States may be too busy trying to reconstruct Iraq to worry about sparring with France. That, he adds, may ultimately be very good news for the French government.