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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

U.S.-French Rift Could Far Outlast Crisis

March 16, 2003|Paul Richter and Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Months of bitter wrangling over Iraq have fundamentally altered the Bush administration's view of France, convincing it, officials say, that the longtime ally is a competitor in world affairs and a threat to the harmony of U.S. relations with Europe.

Paris appears to be "actively working to undermine the transatlantic link," said one senior U.S. official.

As France's push to block a U.S.-sponsored resolution on Iraq at the U.N. Security Council appears close to succeeding, U.S. officials are warning the French that their efforts could hurt themselves -- to begin with, by limiting their role in the lucrative postwar rebuilding of Iraq.

The new U.S. attitude, reflected in increasingly sharp public language from Washington, marks a striking shift from just after Sept. 11, 2001, when French newspapers declared the nation's sympathy for America. U.S. officials say they feel betrayed by France's role not only in opposing the use of force against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein but also in organizing wider opposition.

U.S. officials and experts say American and French interests are so closely intertwined that any attempt at retribution could end up hurting the United States as much -- or more -- than France. Yet many experts believe that the attitude of the administration and Congress has become so hostile to Paris that they are likely to seek reprisals that could damage the joint effort against terrorism or undermine the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The evolving U.S. approach may be best reflected, some say, in the attitude of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Long France's favorite Bush administration official because of his internationalist outlook, Powell was convinced for most of last fall that France ultimately would not block a U.S. military effort to disarm Iraq.

But his attitude began to change Jan. 20, when he felt ambushed at a United Nations meeting by the strong opposition to U.S. plans from French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, according to U.S. officials.

According to one ranking diplomat in Washington, De Villepin sought to patch up relations at a one-on-one meeting in Powell's New York suite March 6. De Villepin began the meeting by saying he hoped that the fight in the United Nations would not harm the personal relations between the two men, or the relationships of their countries. Powell responded with an angry vulgarity, the diplomat said.

A senior U.S. official denied that Powell had used off-color language. He said Powell had told De Villepin that the two countries would remain allies, yet "let's be honest: what happens here will affect the relationship."

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Powell returned from that meeting "absolutely furious." Of the French government, a frustrated Powell reportedly said: "There is no one there to talk to."

The administration's irritation has been reflected in statements that question whether France really wants to disarm Iraq or simply stand in the way of the United States.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said last week that France's stand made it less likely that Baghdad can be disarmed peacefully.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer pointed out that France shot down Britain's latest proposal to assign final tests for Iraqi disarmament even before Baghdad rejected the idea.

"If that isn't an unreasonable veto, what is?" Fleischer asked.

Fleischer seemed to sympathize with people boycotting French wine and cheese.

"You are seeing the American people speak spontaneously, and that is their right," he said.

Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador to Washington, said he believes the rancor is only temporary.

"What's going on right now is a kind of fever," he said. "It will calm down after these difficult days, and we'll be friends again, and work together. We have no other options."

Yet experts said the significance of the divisions should not be underestimated.

Simon Serfaty, director of the Europe program at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he believed U.S.-French relations are now in worse shape than they have been in 50 years -- even worse than in the 1960s, when U.S. frictions with French leader Charles de Gaulle ran strong.

"It is not just that the French have objected to U.S. policies, it is that they've been proactive: They've put together a coalition that stands in the way of U.S. preferences on an existential issue," Serfaty said.

The United States and France currently collaborate on a variety of important issues.

The French are perhaps the most important foreign contributor to the U.S. effort against terrorism and have unmatched information on Islamic militants. They provided information that led to the arrest of the terrorist who tried to blow up Los Angeles International Airport in December 1999.

The United States and France also have hundreds of billions of dollars of direct investment in each other's countries.

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