Is Paris Back on Board?

By Drozdiak, William | Newsweek International, January 12, 2004 | Go to article overview

Is Paris Back on Board?


Drozdiak, William, Newsweek International


They are called les visiteurs du soir, or visitors of the evening. Mostly top business executives and trusted friends, they drop by the Elysee Palace after hours to offer discreet advice to Jacques Chirac. These days, their nocturnal appeals deliver a single message with growing urgency: heal the breach with the United States. The president appears to be taking their words to heart. If all goes well, according to one Elysee insider, the world could see him standing with President George W. Bush on the beaches of Normandy this June, celebrating the 60th anniversary of D-Day as French troops prepare to head to Iraq as part of a NATO-led peacekeeping force.

That rosy scenario looks counterintuitive, to say the least. Not since Charles de Gaulle booted out NATO have relations between France and the United States been so fraught. Chirac deeply offended Washington over Iraq. Yet now he seems to be reaching out for a reconciliation. Last month he gave a surprisingly warm reception to James Baker, the former secretary of State serving as Bush's personal envoy in seeking relief from the $120 billion in debts racked up by Saddam Hussein. To Washington's evident delight, Chirac said France was willing to forgive a large chunk of its $3 billion share--provided that French firms would be removed from a U.S. blacklist on Iraq reconstruction contracts. France's cooperation on debt relief (echoed by China and Japan last week) would also set a good example for Germany and Russia. Both opposed the war, and both hold billions of dollars in unpaid Iraqi debts. They, too, want to open doors to their companies for lucrative business deals in Baghdad.

France has much to gain from a detente. In particular, the French oil company TotalElfFina hopes to exercise concessions to exploit Iraq's rich southern oilfields. The country's military commanders are also dismayed by the current spat with the United States and are pushing for a truce. Senior government officials tell NEWSWEEK that Chirac may in fact be willing to explore once again France's eventual integration into NATO's military command, starting with the dispatch of French peacekeeping troops to Iraq next summer under NATO auspices.

That would be good news for the Bush administration, determined to reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq ahead of the November 2004 presidential election. Indeed, a NATO option for Iraq--based on the template that sent an allied peacekeeping force into Bosnia in 1995 under United Nations cover--is shaping up as a key item on the agenda of alliance leaders when they gather for their June summit in Istanbul. Previous negotiations to bring France back into NATO's military command have fallen apart because the United States would not accept French demands to assume control of the southern Mediterranean theater, for fear of disrupting the U.S. chain of command for the Sixth Fleet. French sources say that Chirac may now be willing to accept a modified arrangement that would give France two key NATO positions at the brigadier-general level in return for its full participation in alliance operations.

There are other forces pushing for a rapprochement. One is personal, growing out of Chirac's own fondness for the United States dating back to his college days working as a soda jerk at a Howard Johnson's restaurant in Boston and courting a South Carolina belle who called him "honeychile. …

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