France Rediscovers Its Global Influence and Muscle ; in Paris's Biggest Operation in Africa in 20 Years, 2,500 Troops Head to Ivory Coast

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As France beefs up its troops in war-torn Ivory Coast, where its soldiers are already fighting antigovernment rebels, Paris is sending a clear diplomatic message to the world.

"France is back," says Dominique Moisi, a top political analyst here, after seven years of divided government that all but paralyzed French influence in international affairs.

At the United Nations, in the councils of the European Union, and now in France's old stamping grounds of Africa, newly re-elected President Jacques Chirac, with a fresh parliamentary majority behind him, is flexing French muscles on the world stage with unaccustomed vigor.

The effects have been felt at the UN Security Council, where France took a leading role in negotiations with the United States over the wording of the resolution demanding that Iraq submit to weapons inspections.

The signs are clear in the European Union, where France and Germany have united as the duo that has traditionally provided the union's engine. Earlier this month they obliged Turkey to put its hopes of EU membership on hold for another two years; before that they set EU farm policy in a private deal that other members were not strong enough to change.

And now in West Africa, Paris has abandoned its policy of leaving African nations to resolve African crises and launched its biggest military operation on the continent in more than 20 years, with 2,500 men to be deployed in Ivory Coast by the end of this week.

"This marks a shift in French policy in Africa," says Roland Marchal, an expert on Africa at the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris. "It's new, and it's very much a result of Chirac feeling secure enough to take a quite risky initiative now he has a parliamentary majority" and a sympathetic government, after seven years of "cohabitation" with a hostile Socialist prime minister.

That period was marked by a sense of frustration in France that the country - which has traditionally seen itself as a global standard bearer of universal values - was unable to make its presence felt abroad while US power grew. Since elections in June, however, Mr. Chirac has enjoyed a free hand in foreign policy that has clearly emboldened him.

New signals on Iraq

This new atmosphere is likely to influence French policy toward Iraq, should the US go to war against Baghdad.

Warning that the prospect of an internationally sanctioned war "should by no means be ruled out," Chirac said recently that in such an event "France will know how to assume her responsibilities."

That was a clear hint that "if there is a UN decision against Iraq, France will definitely participate in operations," says Dr. Moisi, of the French International Relations Institute, a think tank in Paris. "And if the US goes it alone, France will regret it diplomatically, but offer help on the side, such as bases and the use of airspace."

For the time being, around 36,000 French troops are engaged in foreign operations, mostly peacekeeping, from Kabul to the Balkans and Africa. The most dangerous is currently the mission in Ivory Coast, where French soldiers came under fire from a rebel convoy outside the western town of Duekoue Saturday, before destroying it. …