The Franco-American Summit in New York

George W. Bush yesterday gave his long-awaited speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations. It hardly went over like gangbusters. I assume that you’ve already consulted the accounts from the mainstream American press: the New York TimesAn Audience Unmoved; the Washington PostA Vague Pitch Leaves Mostly Puzzlement. And that unflattering coverage was from American media, which need to behave themselves vis-à-vis the Administration to ward off John Ashcroft shutting them down as subversive organizations under the Patriot Act. (OK, so it’s not like that, at least not yet. At least not among the newspapers – but I’ve read some interesting analysis about the factor that makes the American broadcast media so nice towards Administration policy, and its initials are F, C, and C.)

How bad is the coverage of the same event (and its appendages – like the Bush-Chirac meeting) likely to be in the French press? Let’s take a look.

The analysis piece in Le Monde, Paris-Washington, Two Opposing Diagnoses on the Situation in Iraq, shows a surprisingly mild tone.

As became clear out of Bush’s and Chirac’s tête-à-tête in New York, the Franco-American dispute arises out of a simple disagreement: to the French, things in Iraq are getting worse and worse, while to the Americans, they’re getting better and better. What this means is that, in the French view, the Iraqi people are getting so restive and disillusioned about having to live under occupation that the best thing to do is to give them back their sovereignty by bestowing that on the Iraqi Governing Council, even though that body was set up back in July by the Americans and so enjoys but imperfect political legitimacy, at best. For the Americans, on the other hand, their rosy outlook means that what is rather called for is waiting, and rebuilding, until the point comes at which sovereignty can be restored to the Iraqi people in the form of a truly representative political institution.

It’s almost enough to make you laugh: That Le Monde piece also reports that Bush told Chirac at their meeting that he expected that the financial contribution to the reconstruction of Iraq would be especially generous from France, “which is a rich country.” Chirac merely responded that the donors-for-Iraq conference of nations scheduled for Madrid next month would be the time to discuss such matters as that. In any case, the French president made it clear (as he already had to the press; see mention of his New York Times interview at bottom) that France would not veto any American resolution on Iraq in the Security Council. And maybe, just maybe, there is room for a compromise solution opening up, in the form of the difference France sees between “transfer of sovereignty” and “transfer of responsibility”; apparently American negotiators had been unaware, prior to the Bush-Chirac meeting, that the two could be different things. This wrinkle opens up the possibility of establishing some sort of new Iraqi authority – more legitimate, in the sense of being chosen by the Iraqis themselves, but not yet truly having true responsibility for the country – which would make keep both the Americans and the French happy.

For its part, Le Figaro, in its article entitled Help the Americans, but From Far Away, detects a clever double strategy on Chirac’s part. In the run-up to the opening of the General Assembly, some had started to call France America’s enemy, uninterested in the war on terrorism; so in his visit to New York Chirac took care to lay a wreath at the temporary memorial to the victims of September 11 at Battery Park. Some had even started to call France an anti-Semitic country; so Chirac took care to meet with local Jewish leaders. Above all, such as during the opening comments to his meeting with George W. Bush, Chirac emphasized the long Franco-American friendship.

But that was form; when it came to substance, Chirac cleaved rock-solid to France’s stated position. The Bush Administration’s doctrine of preventive war is wrong-headed and dangerous; sovereignty must be returned to the Iraqi people as soon as possible; and France is willing to help in Iraq, but only from afar, such as by helping to train Iraqi security forces. As writer Anne Fulda described it, France would help America “a bit like an external consultant, an engaged actor, but only half-engaged.” And so that means that, in substance, the French and American positions are still very far apart.

Libération takes a surprisingly soft line. (Wait now: How can this Paris-based publication be in any fear of John Ashcroft?) Its analysis from its New York correspondents Pascal Riché and Fabrice Rousselot is actually entitled A Compromise As Difficult As It Is Ineluctable (“ineluctable” =”unavoidable”). Both sides of the Atlantic divide are ready for that compromise, the newspaper notes; rather less polemic from out of the White House and Pentagon lately has been matched by French assurances that “we will approach this General Assembly with a constructive attitude, open to negotiation.” And, after all, both sides have the same goal in mind (don’t they?), namely to avoid a degeneration of the situation in Iraq and in the Middle East in general.

But things so far have not been very propitious for any compromise. Libération gives a remarkable even-handed account of the gap between the two sides’ positions. On the one hand, the French seem to want the Iraqis to take over soon, within six months or nine months at most. The Kosovans haven’t even taken over their own governance, and it’s been three-and-a-half years since they were freed from the former Yugoslavia! The American side can’t escape from the impression that the France are advancing proposals that they know in reality can never work, not to solve the problem but just to throw the proverbial spanner (in American: wrench; in French: clef à écrous) in the works. For their part, the French see the Americans as extremely rigid, and out to have their cake and eat it, too (a quote from Marie Antoinette?), by getting everybody to come help in Iraq, with men and money, without having to make any concessions on the timetable and who’s in charge.

So far, so good. But then Libération’s piece abruptly ends with the pat conclusion, “they’ve nevertheless got to find common ground and reach some compromise, or else not just the Americans and French, but everyone will suffer.” Granted – but how? What could that compromise look like? Messieurs Riché and Rousselot don’t say; maybe they ran out of space. (That’s an occupational hazard of using big words like “ineluctable,” gentlemen.)

Finally, let’s consult our good Communist friends at L’Humanité. They also detect a softening of the French position in the direction of compromise, in Pierre Barbancey’s article The Elysée [i.e. the French government] Wants to Be Flexible Towards Bush, and they and M. Barbancey don’t seem to be too disturbed by that, either.

Barbancey skillfully paints this picture of a more reasonable French position via careful exegesis of President Chirac’s words and behavior during his New York visit. For example, the big French demand was supposed to be a transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people, and soon (that “six to nine months” that Libération spoke of in fact came from the the New York Times interview). Yet, in his speech before the UN, Chirac did not designate any sort of timetable or deadline; instead, he stipulated that that should be done selon un calendrier réaliste, or “according to a realistic schedule.” And the very assurance Chirac has given that he would not use France’s veto on the Security Council to block the Americans – no matter what they propose, seemingly – should be seen as a significant concession itself. This has been a tough climb-down to take – Barbancey quotes George W. Bush, in his own pre-UN interview with Fox News, expecting that Chirac would eventually understand why Bush did the things in Iraq he did, if you just give him enough time – but it has happened; France has come at least half-way towards the American position, in this view.

By the way, for some excellent enlightenment on the French position, don’t miss that previously-mentioned interview that le Grand Chef himself, President Chirac, gave to the New York Times shortly before leaving for New York. Obviously, the Times’ rendition of the interview is in English, although President Chirac conducted the interview in French. (Of course Chirac did the interview in French – it was conducted at the Elysée Palace, for heaven’s sake! – even though his English is more than adequate, when he wants to use it. It seems that young Jacques spent some time working as a soda jerk in the States in the early 1950s. And, when he met with George W. Bush Tuesday evening, just after their speeches to the UN General Assembly, of course Chirac insisted in speaking in French, so that the translators had to do their thing – or at least one translator, namely when Chirac spoke to Bush in French – even though Bush knows perfectly well that Chirac can handle English. I bet that really gets the American president riled.) Put another way, catch that NYT English interview quick, before the Grand Old Lady of American journalism starts wanting to charge you for access to it. Or you can go here for extracts of the interview in Le Monde, but at least extracts consisting of the actual French words that President Chirac originally uttered.

(One last pedagogical note – you know I can’t resist. Yes, le Grand Chef is one appropriate epithet, among many others, for the French President, because the primary meaning of chef in French is “leader,” “principal,” and not the “chef” whom we’re used to seeing with white clothes and a white hat in the kitchens of restaurants. That latter is chef de cuisine, or “principal of the kitchen,” in French. I learned that the hard way while once in conversation in Paris with an actual French chef, although I should have just paid more attention to my dictionary.)

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