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French Public Opposition to Iraq Conflict Poses Challenge for Chirac - 2003-01-09

A new survey shows three quarters of all French citizens oppose a war on Iraq. The poll was conducted as President Jacques Chirac appears to be trying to prepare public opinion for a possible conflict with Baghdad.

Published by Le Figaro newspaper, the survey coincides with a scheduled Security Council briefing on Iraq's 12,000 page arms report by U.N. weapons chiefs in New York.

France is president of the Security Council this month, and French President Jacques Chirac continues to call for a diplomatic solution to the Iraqi crisis.

Mr. Chirac said the "use of force is always a statement of failure and the worst of all solutions." He said it should only be used when all other options have failed.

The Figaro survey, by the Ipsos polling agency, finds the same number of French, roughly three quarters, oppose military intervention in Baghdad as last September. That number is roughly similar to a poll taken before the start of the first Gulf War in 1991, when 79 percent of French citizens polled said they opposed military intervention.

The 2003 survey also finds the majority of French lawmakers are against war.

Surveys in Germany, Great Britain, and the United States indicate many people are opposed to military intervention in Iraq.

But the French findings may pose a challenge for President Chirac, who told French military leaders Tuesday to be prepared for all eventualities, including a war on Baghdad. His warning marks a change from last fall, when the French government said war could be avoided.

French analysts like Remy Leveau suggest Mr. Chirac now believes war may be inevitable. Mr. Leveau, an expert in Middle East politics at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris, believes President Chirac realizes the Bush administration is likely to wage war on Baghdad. If France is not responsive to the United States, Mr. Leveau said, it may not have easy access to Iraqi oil in the future.

However, another Middle East expert, Alexandre de Valle, argued France's conservative government backed a military solution from the start. An analyst at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Paris, Mr. de Valle suggests French lobbying at the United Nations to avoid war amounted to posturing to appease Arab countries and France's large ethnic Arab population.

But though the survey shows great opposition to a war on Iraq, French public opinion can change rapidly. Just days after the start of the 1991 Gulf War, a new survey showed a striking 67 percent of French approved of the military strikes. Mr. Chirac may remember this, if he launches a public relations campaign to convince the French to support a new war on Baghdad.