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The Men Behind the French 'Non'

Chirac and his aide, De Villepin, were expected to improve Franco-U.S. ties. Instead, they are fundamentally at odds with a centuries-old ally.

March 17, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — It's hard to believe, but only last summer the two-man team now leading France's diplomatic clash with the United States was expected to improve U.S.-French relations.

President Jacques Chirac won reelection in May and installed a center-right administration after seven years of uneasy coexistence with a Socialist government that butted heads frequently with Washington. Although aloofness from the U.S. is enshrined in French politics, Chirac and his new foreign minister, an ambitious and restless intellectual named Dominique de Villepin, were considered relatively pro-American.

Chirac, 70, was the first world leader to go to ground zero after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. De Villepin, 49, speaks fluent English and spent three years as press attache at the French Embassy in Washington. Last summer, his aides indicated that he intended to tone down the diplomatic spats that had made the French-American friendship increasingly complicated.

Yet Chirac's leadership of a global antiwar bloc culminated last week with a threat to veto a new U.N. resolution authorizing military action against Iraq. And after an emergency summit in the Azores on Sunday, the disdain with which President Bush referred to French leaders added to a stream of transatlantic vitriol that has left a more than 200-year-old alliance in real danger.

In Paris and other capitals, the personality and politics behind the high-stakes showdown are under intense scrutiny.

Fundamentally, both men seem driven by the idea that their careers have converged at a defining moment for the world and for their country. France burns with "the flame of a great nation eager to defend its rank," De Villepin wrote this year in the book "The Cry of the Gargoyle."

The French response to the Iraq crisis resembles the strategic audacity that De Villepin espouses in general terms in the book: decisive action that "breaches the doors of destiny" and "surprises the world."

That aggressive vision, combined with vast support here and around the world for France's antiwar position, may have caused Chirac and De Villepin to underestimate the likely U.S. backlash, according to analysts.

"Chirac doesn't see that the reading of the crisis by the Americans is very different," said Frederic Bozo of the French Institute for International Relations here. "I think he's convinced about what he's doing, but ... the conjunction of international and domestic forces has pushed him into a more radical presentation than he may have realized."

Chirac is a workhorse politician who has emphasized prudence and consensus in his 40-year career. But the post-Sept. 11 world has transformed him, like Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other leaders, into something of a gambler. He knows that the futures of France, the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations are all on the table.

Yet Chirac looked remarkably serene last week when he announced his intention to cast a veto in the U.N. Security Council. During a televised interview, he predicted that the U.S.-French friendship would survive.

"There is no risk that the American people and the French people will dispute," he said.

Asked about U.S. economic retaliation, he shook his head sagely before responding, "I know the Americans too well to think they would use this kind of method."

U.S. critics wonder whether French leaders have over-intellectualized their actions in a way that denies reality. Critics accuse the French of demagogic anti-American obstructionism and sneaky agendas, such as protecting oil deals and other French commercial interests in Iraq. They recall Chirac's past contacts with Saddam Hussein: As French prime minister in the 1970s, he helped Iraq build the Osirak nuclear reactor, which was destroyed by Israeli fighter jets during a raid in 1981.

In a television appearance Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney said that France's policy over the years has helped Iraq deflect pressure to disarm. "So it's difficult to take the French seriously and believe that this is anything other than just further delaying tactics," Cheney said in reference to France's latest proposals for speeded-up arms inspections by the U.N.

Chirac and De Villepin mean what they say, according to some analysts. The duo fear that war will destabilize the Middle East, trigger terrorism and impose the law of the jungle over international law. "Seeing the French behavior just through the prism of being anti-U.S. is to miss the point," said one Western diplomat. "They truly think that the U.S. is wrong on the substance of a matter which could have an impact in the region beyond Iraq. In addition, other possible motives are launching France on the world stage and being seen as standing up to unilateral militarism."

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