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France Seeks Fence Mending With US, But Still Pursues Some Different Foreign Policies - 2003-05-03

Amid reports the Bush administration is looking for ways to punish France for vigorously opposing the U.S.-led war on Iraq, the French government appears to be responding with a two-part strategy. Officials are rushing to mend fences with the United States. But France also continues to back foreign policy initiatives not always in line with American ones.

It was French President Jacques Chirac who broke the diplomatic ice last month. After weeks of silence, he placed a call to President Bush. Mr. Chirac followed that up with the message that France was adopting what he described as a pragmatic policy, now that the war Paris staunchly opposed was all but over.

But while the French government recently called for suspending U.N. sanctions against Baghdad, it continues to oppose U.S.-led efforts to lift them entirely in the short term. Paris also continues to insist the United Nations play a central role in post-war Iraq, a position the Bush administration opposes.

And last month, as Washington was warning Syria and Iran against meddling in Iraq, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin was visiting those very countries to strengthen bilateral ties.

The latest signal of French independence came in Brussels Tuesday, when Mr. Chirac joined leaders from Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany to announce a controversial new European defense union. The leaders all adamantly opposed the war on Iraq, which has deeply divided Europe.

Critics view the defense meeting, at which plans were announced to create a military center separate from NATO, as creating fresh rifts in European and trans-Atlantic ties. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell conveyed his coolness by saying a new military headquarters would be a waste of money.

Etienne de Durand, a defense specialist at the French Institute for International Relations, in Paris, says the Brussels meeting again illustrated French efforts to forge a European policy separate from the United States. Such acts might further degrade rocky relations with Washington, he says, but he notes France has also made gestures to patch up bilateral ties in recent weeks.

At home, President Chirac is still praised for defying the American-led war on Iraq. One recent newspaper poll, for example, found 84 percent of French still believe that Mr. Chirac was right in opposing the war.

But many war opponents now believe the time has come for France and the United States to bury their differences.

U.S. diplomats also note France is an historic ally. They have praised recent gestures by Paris to repair relations. But at the same time, officials in Washington are reportedly considering a series of punitive measures against Paris for its stance on Iraq. The possibilities may range from downgrading bilateral relations, to sidelining France in NATO decision-making.

Already, French diplomats and businessmen have reportedly complained of being snubbed during visits to the United States. Wine and cheese exporters are fretting about the bite of informal boycotts. And French politicians like Paul Girod, fear more economic reprisals are coming.

Mr. Girod is a French senator, who heads a U.S.-French friendship group in the senate. He says he doubts there will be any formal U.S. sanctions against French products. But he also believes French businesses will be given little consideration when it comes to future business contracts in Iraq and elsewhere.

France has felt Washington's wrath before. At the height of the Cold War, in 1966, French President Charles de Gaulle pulled out of the NATO alliance, and launched the country's independent nuclear program, prompting the United States to suspend nuclear cooperation with France. But in the 1970s, the collaboration was discreetly resumed.

Mr. de Durand, the defense analyst, believes the current differences between Washington and Paris are not nearly as serious as the French withdrawal from NATO. "I think, today, the situation is completely different. It's a very fluctuating context. There are threats, it's true. There may be sanctions as well. But I don't see the divorce as being as enduring as it was in 1966. Because when France walked out of NATO, it was really a tremendous blow to the alliance," he says.

Today, Mr. De Durand says, pragmatism rather than Cold War ideology may drive the two countries closer. If France and the United States find their interests converge, in issues ranging from Western defense to Middle East peace, he predicts, relations between the two countries should return to normal fairly quickly.