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To Hear France Tell It, Chirac Scored a KO at the U.N.

The media and experts say their president rallied world opinion on Iraq, isolating Bush.

September 26, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — The aftermath of the latest clash between French President Jacques Chirac and President Bush over Iraq highlights a peculiarity of diplomatic combat: Unlike a boxing match, there are no judges to prevent both sides from declaring victory.

Assessing the debate and the diplomatic footwork at the U.N. General Assembly this week, French leaders and pundits said Thursday that those who pronounced Bush the winner in New York must have been watching a different fight.

And Chirac and his partisans scoffed at assertions by U.S. diplomats that a smiley makeup session Wednesday between Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had wounded the antiwar alliance that stood against the U.S. in the Security Council this spring.

The French view was that Chirac had hit Bush with a skillful one-two punch at the United Nations: first bringing down the house with a speech denouncing the war, then rallying Germany and Russia behind Chirac's call for a quick return to Iraqi self-rule and U.N.-led reconstruction.

"So words can overcome muscle!" enthused an editorial in Le Figaro newspaper Thursday. "Suddenly, it's Bush who is alone while Chirac can count on a large circle of sympathizers."

Those fighting words don't mean that another dust-up at the U.N. is inevitable. French diplomats insist that, unlike in the spring, they will not threaten a veto to block a U.S. resolution spelling out the international community's role in Iraq. U.S. officials take the French at their word. An eventual compromise appears more likely this time around.

But Chirac does not look cowed by U.S. efforts to isolate France diplomatically. Bush's increasing woes -- attacks on U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies, no sign of Saddam Hussein's reputed lethal arsenal, anger in Congress -- have reinforced the French conviction that the opposition to the war was justified and that France can spearhead postwar resistance to perceived U.S. unilateralism.

Moreover, the French weren't the only ones to notice that Chirac got a lot more applause at the U.N. than did Bush, whose speech Tuesday struck European critics as surprisingly defiant.

A French former diplomat said Chirac may have responded by toughening up his prepared text to include pointed criticism of the Bush administration's treatment of the U.N. and its decision to go to war without the support of the Security Council.

"The intention beforehand was not for Chirac to talk about the war," said Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Institute of International Relations here. "But he did. I don't think Bush could have given less in his speech. Essentially, he said, 'You have to help us and we can't give you much.' ... The situation is not easy for France. But I don't see many countries coming to the rescue of the United States in Iraq today."

Schroeder certainly seemed to be in a helpful mood Wednesday when the German chancellor and Bush announced that their war-related feud was over. Yet the French interpret the conciliatory move as only a gesture by a leader whose voters, according to recent polls, have soured on Washington and see Paris as a valued partner in Europe.

"My understanding of the German position is it's very close to the French position," Parmentier said. "They want a fast transition to Iraqi sovereignty under the aegis of the U.N."

Chirac's feistiness over the war may have soured U.S.-French relations, but it continues to win points around the world and at home. Le Figaro said that his use "of the invisible weapons of the soft power" of diplomacy at the U.N. made him a worthy heir of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, whose foreign policy often collided with U.S. ambitions.

"As in the era of the general, France, despite its small army and big deficits, offers a counter-model," the editorial said.

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