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France Re-Affirms its Independence in Stance Toward Iraq

As U.S. President George Bush continues his campaign to persuade members of the United Nations Security Council to adopt a tough new resolution on Iraq, he is finding strong resistance from France. Many French are skeptical about a possible military campaign against Baghdad.

These days, the Iraqi Interests Section in France is located inside the Embassy of Morocco, on a quiet and elegant street in northern Paris. It's here where French insurance saleswoman, Annie Dutertre, paused one recent afternoon, to talk with a reporter about the possibility of war against Iraq.

Mrs. Dutertre said she believes America's campaign against Baghdad is more about controlling that country's extensive oil reserves, than about fears Iraq is acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Mrs. Dutertre added she is sick of America's clout in the world, and most French feel the same way.

Mrs. Dutertre's blunt comments hardly reflect the official position of France, one of Washington's two European allies holding a veto-bearing seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The other ally is Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair supports the Bush administration's demands that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein comply with speedy and intrusive weapons inspections. But a volley of American lobbying has failed to shake deep-seated French resistance to what it considers hasty or unilateral action against Baghdad.

On Wednesday night, President George Bush telephoned French president Jacques Chirac to again try to reconcile the two countries' positions. But so far, Mr. Chirac still seems to support a gradual, two-resolution U.N. strategy toward Iraq, and rejects what he calls the automaticity of a military option, if arms inspections fail, a position favored by the United States.

Mr. Chirac is not the only French politician questioning the Bush administration's stance toward Iraq. This week, both the French Senate and National Assembly held debates on Iraq. Leftist deputies have called on France to wield its veto power at the U.N., a possibility Mr. Chirac's ruling Union for the Presidential Majority Party appears to reject. And, in a Tuesday address to the National Assembly, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin assailed the U.S. efforts to remove Saddam Hussein as simplistic.

But in an interview with France's RTL radio station this week, Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin stressed he remained optimistic that Paris and Washington would eventually reach an agreement.

Mr. de Villepin said it was essential for the international community to maintain a united position on Iraq. At the same time, he also expressed dismay at Washington's determination to oust Mr. Hussein at all costs.

Philippe Moreau Defarges, an analyst at the French Institute for International Relations, does not believe France will ultimately use its veto power against a U.N. resolution it doesn't like.

"I think France would do everything it can not to use the veto," he said. "Of course, France knows that Britain, the United States and itself belong to the same camp. And a French veto at the U.N. Security Council against the United States would be a severe blow to the Atlantic cohesion."

Shaping France's stance on Iraq, experts say, is a complicated mix of considerations, including long-standing business and diplomatic ties with Baghdad, and strong relations with moderate Arab countries. And as Paul Godt, a French politics professor at the American University of Paris points out, Paris has a long tradition of forging an independent-minded foreign policy.

"Ever since the Gaullist era, France has always tried to set itself apart," he said. "That's the Gaullist doctrine, which has become part of French foreign policy. There's been no change on that, no matter who has been in power, from Giscard d'Estaing to Pompidou to Mitterrand. France has to find its own line, and it has to be done almost in opposition to the United States."

In the 1970s, France became one of Iraq's top military suppliers. In 1975, Mr. Chirac, then French prime minister, welcomed Mr. Hussein to his home. The two countries reestablished ties after the Gulf War, and France emerged as a leading exporter of goods under a U.N.-sponsored humanitarian program.

Paris now has a booth at Baghdad's annual trade fair. And two years ago, France followed Russia in defying a U.N. air ban against Iraq by allowing an activist group to fly a private plane to Baghdad.

Today, opposition to a possible war on Baghdad spans the French political spectrum, from the far-left to the far-right. Even President Chirac's new Environment Minister, Rosalyne Bachelot, once presided over an Iraqi friendship group, as a National Assembly lawmaker.

Gilles Munier, the secretary-general of another private association called the French-Iraqi Friendship Group, said, "...French interests in Iraq and the Middle East stretch back centuries. He condemns the U.S. campaign as being motivated by Baghdad's oil wealth. He said Washington is determined to reshape the Middle East to suit its own interests.

Anti-war sentiment runs high among ordinary French as well. A September poll, published by France's Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper, found 65 percent of French opposed a U.N.-backed military intervention in Iraq. Still, the figure was down from 75 percent opposition in August.

But politics are on the side of President Chirac, who is keeping his options open. France's Senate and National Assembly are dominated by members of Mr. Chirac's center-right party. And some experts believe that if the French President were to support any future military campaign against Baghdad, he would be able to make his case to the French government, and to the French people.