- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

PARIS, Feb. 27 (UPI) — A funny thing happened at the French National Assembly after its long debate Wednesday that demonstrated overwhelming bipartisan support for President Jacques Chirac's policy on Iraq. There was no vote. It was a debate of purely intellectual interest that displayed French unanimity in the face of American pressure.

President Chirac later explained that he had wanted no vote because he did not want the Assembly to trespass "on the presidential reserve." And it is true that the French constitution leaves foreign policy in the president's hands. But a declarative vote of support would hardly have dented the presidential prerogative.

There is an alternative explanation. A formal vote by the French parliament would have made it far more difficult for Chirac to change his policy in the future. A vote that committed France to another six months of United Nations inspections would have tied his hands — even if Saddam Hussein refuses to scrap his illegal missiles, of if the United Nations' Hans Blix concludes that the Iraqi leader is indeed giving the inspectors the runaround.

Chirac is famous in France for his ability to turn on a political dime, to switch positions for tactical advantage. And there may be a good political reason for him to do so. It would be premature to talk of a revolt against Chirac's Iraq policy, but there are growing signs of serious discomfort in Chirac's own party with the prospect of a U.N. veto that could leave France dangerously isolated.

Alain Juppe, the former prime minister who now leads Chirac's UMP party (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) and is probably Chirac's most likely successor, made it clear that he supported French policy so far — but was dubious about the use of the U.N. veto.

"French diplomacy has been able to avoid what some here have been pushing it toward and would have certainly isolated it: specifically, the inopportune use of its veto power," Juppe said.

Other UMP leaders agreed. Jacques Barrot, who heads the UMP's deputies in the National Assembly, and former Prime Minister Edouard Baladur, chairman of the Assembly's foreign affairs commission, have both warned their fellow deputies against a veto that would mean a lasting breach in France's relations with the United States and half of Europe.

"You don't play games with your right of veto when you know that there can be a war tomorrow that involves the Americans, our allies," said Pierre Lellouche, another senior UMP figure in the assembly. "We're not going to shoot them in the back."

Later in a radio interview, Lellouche was asked if he meant that a veto would be a French bullet in the back of America, he replied, "Obviously." Lellouche also told a briefing of French journalists that "a majority of the UMP" group now took this view.

"We're not going to wrench apart the U.N. and Europe just in order to save a tyrant," said Claude Goasguen, another UMP legislator identified with the group now being called "the Atlanticists." Their main concern is to ensure that the Iraq crisis does not become the occasion for a collapse of U.S.-French relations, above all in the dubious cause of Saddam Hussein.

Moreover, they claim that France would pay a price not just in Washington, but also in Europe, where the British, Spanish, Italian and Danish governments have made clear their support for the United States. Moreover, all the states of Eastern Europe, poised to become full members of the European Union next year, have backed the Bush administration's position.

"It might make sense for Paris to challenge the United States if Europe is solidly in support of France. But to challenge both Washington and a majority of fellow Europeans is a very different question and forces France to think hard about its policies," one Paris-based British diplomat told United Press International.

Raymond Barre, another former prime minister, has warned that there can be little expectation that Russia and China would join France in casting a veto at the United Nations, which would mean French isolation. Nor do many French officials see any lasting strategic alternative for France in a temporary diplomatic alliance with Germany, Russia and China. And Germany is seen as eager to rebuild its Atlantic ties once the Iraq crisis is over.

The UMP deputies were also sobered by the way in which the left-wing opposition parties had rallied behind Chirac during the crisis, and had now become the strongest voices urging the use of France's veto against the latest American-British-Spanish resolution now before the United Nations. During Wednesday's debate, both the Communist party and the Socialist leader Francois Hollande called for France to use its U.N. veto — sufficient reason for many of Chirac's conservative backers to think again.

In sum, the French position is for more fluid than it might look, and it would be unwise to rule out a sudden conversion by President Chirac ahead of the next U.N. vote - if Hans Blix gives Paris the slightest excuse to reconsider.

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