“France Must Pay!”: The Current Franco-American Rift

It came on US publicly-funded television – on PBS’ Charlie Rose show – and from the highest-level Bush administration official charged with diplomacy generally and with keeping relations civil with our allies in particular. When asked whether it was intended that France suffer consequences for its obstructionist stance in the run-up to the War in Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell bluntly replied “Yes,” and then “We’ll have to look at all aspects of our relations with France in the light of that.”

That obstructionist stance shows little sign of disappearing now that that war is over but the “peace” – a prosperous, democratic Iraq – remains to be won. The French, together with the Russians, are now showing a careful regard for the UN economic sanctions that they rarely displayed back when they were being applied against Saddam Hussein. Iraq now badly needs the income that oil sales can bring it. However, the lifting of sanctions that would enable legal oil sales still awaits the necessary UN Security Council vote; France’s President Jacques Chirac reminds us that “It’s up to the United Nations to define the modalities” of the lifting of sanctions. According to his recent column in the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer interprets “modalities” as simply being the French for “payoff.”

How is the French press presenting this dispute? “Paris can make all the efforts in vain it wants to recharge the Franco-American relationship, but Washington’s rancor is tenacious” is the very first sentence of an account appearing in Libération. White House press spokesman Ari Fleischer did deny any suggestion that “France must pay a price”; French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin did issue a statement calling for “openness and pragmatism” in relations between the two countries; but most interesting of all to Libération is the meeting it reports of Monday of this week at the White House, at a “very high level,” to consider retaliatory action to take against France: there is to be more emphasis within in NATO on working through its Defense Planning Committee, of which France is not a member, and less on working through the North Atlantic Council (of which it is); France is to be excluded from various meetings and summits between American and other European officials; and Jacque Chirac is not likely to be invited to visit the White House anytime soon. (And although George W. Bush will of course be attending the June 1-3 G8 summit at Évian-les-Bains, he will be spending nights just across the border at a hotel in Switzerland – this not from Libération but from the New York Times.)

France’s recent suggestion at the UN Security Council to suspend most of the sanctions against Iraq might have been expected to ease relations, but it’s not having that effect at all, explains L’Humanité, in an article entitled Washington veut les pleins pouvoirs – “Washington wants full powers.” “Suspension,” rather than “lifting” the sanctions is not acceptable to Washington, since suspension does not provide the complete cutting-off of the UN from any say in what happens in post-war Iraq that the US seeks. But the terms of those sanctions – applied, it will be recalled, in August, 1990, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait – allow for their lifting only after a certification to the Security Council that Iraq has complied with UN Security Council resolutions forbidding that it possess weapons of mass destruction. Despite the inspection teams Washington is employing now to find such weapons in Iraq – and despite their technical competence, to which Hans Blix himself has paid tribute – this certification can only come from weapons inspectors on assignment from the UN, which the US is refusing to allow to return to Iraq.

An article in Le Monde best summarizes France’s current position. France and Russia are being punctilious on the question of UN economic sanctions against Iraq because what is at issue is maintaining the authority of the United Nations in the face of the hyperpower which would like to ignore it, proceed on its own, and, if it had its way, limit it henceforth to being merely some sort of provider of humanitarian aid. The Oil-for-Food program provides 60% of the Iraqi population with their sustenance, and so should be continued while the issue of an internationally-recognized, legitimate Iraqi successor regime is still unresolved.

In all, it’s clear that the US and France are still caught in the gulf of mutual antipathy and incomprehension that characterized their confrontation back when the case for applying “any means necessary” to removing Saddam Hussein from power was being argued before the United Nations – despite the understandable desire by many after combat had ceased to patch up the old relationship of routine (if sometime wary) cooperation and friendliness. From what can be found in the press, the fracas most resembles a dialogue of the deaf, with neither side interested in trying to grasp the other’s viewpoint.

But what of France’s fellow members of the European Union – or fellow members to be? Where are they to be found in this dispute? For that, be sure to tune in to the next installment of (drumroll, please) – EuroSavant!

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