- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

PARIS — Risking another showdown with the United States, France is standing firm on its insistence that the United Nations take control in Iraq before it will consider sending troops to help embattled American soldiers.

France remains adamant that the international body must have absolute and complete control over Iraq’s political, economic and civilian reconstruction.

“What would ultimately determine whether the French will support sending peacekeepers to Iraq is going to be the answer to the question: Who would be politically in charge?” said Francois Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, an independent think tank.

“Is it going to be [senior U.S. administrator L] Paul Bremer or [U.N. Special Representative in Iraq] Sergio Vieira de Mello? The French would like Vieira de Mello to take charge of the political transition. That’s where the dividing line lies.”

“The prevailing feeling in Washington is that France would ultimately send troops, come what may,” said Guillaume Parmentier, a government adviser and director of the French Center on the U.S. at the French Institute of International Relations or IFRI.

“That’s ridiculous. If people think France is going to join an occupation force with a fig leaf, they’re in cuckoo land. It will never happen.”

With American soldiers coming under daily attack in Iraq, Bush administration officials who once seemed eager to manage Iraq on their own are now speaking openly of the need for assistance from Russia, Germany and even France. Countries like Spain, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Croatia and Lithuania have already pledged a limited number of peacekeeping troops.

While France has repeatedly expressed concern over the deteriorating situation in Iraq, it has refused to help out without approval by the U.N. Security Council, a stance backed by Germany, Russia and India.

And despite President Bush’s international appeal last week for financial and military assistance, French government officials, so far, are not budging:

“We have always explained to our American friends the conditions that for us are indispensable — there must be principles. Above all, that the United Nations take clear and whole responsibility,” said Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin on local radio last week.

“To go and add other forces today without improving the framework, without legitimately reinforcing the action, is to risk seeing the actual situation perpetuate itself.”

Mr. de Villepin also said the recent killings of Saddam Hussein’s two sons could spark revenge attacks, further justifying the need for the United Nations to take over peacekeeping duties.

“One can also imagine resistance to the coalition forces intensifying. That’s why for France the key is to press ahead with the political process,” he said.

That does not necessarily mean France will initiate a Security Council resolution that would authorize the deployment of international troops — a step that the United States is itself considering.

“I think France probably wants to keep a low profile,” said Philippe Moreau Defarges, one of IFRI’s international relations experts. “The high profile it received in the beginning of the crisis was already much criticized. For it to introduce a resolution would be to return to a high-profile role.”

Most people in France support President Jacques Chirac’s refusal to deploy troops without a new U.N. mandate, just as they backed his opposition to the war itself. According to Stephane Rozes, head of CSA-TMO, a local polling firm, recent events have had little effect on Mr. Chirac’s popularity.

“He experienced a dip during the height of France’s conflict with the U.S. before the war. But the ratings have since gone back up and have not been affected by what’s going on. In fact, I would say that for most ordinary people in France, Iraq is not even on the radar screen.”

Indeed, for many in France, the war in Iraq was not theirs, so neither should the aftermath be their responsibility. “The prevailing feeling is indifference,” Mr. Moreau Defarge said.

Despite the much-publicized rift in U.S.-French relations, few French would admit to any ill will toward Americans today.

“Most of us feel sad for the U.S. soldiers who are in Iraq,” said Mariline Compain-Tissier, a 48-year old financier. “It is a tragedy they are being killed. We do not blame Americans for what is going on in Iraq. We blame George Bush.”

Indeed, pro-American sentiment was very much alive yesterday in Paris, where tens of thousands of French cheered as American cyclist Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France.

In other parts of the country, support for the United States has never wavered. On the northern coast of Normandy, where American forces landed to fight Hitler 60 years ago, most people believe France should be doing more for its longtime ally.

“Some people are saying, ‘We never imagined a day when we would say no to America,” said Magali Glon, a 27-year-old tour guide in Val-sur-Mer, a half-hour drive from Omaha Beach.

“The U.S. helped us, and we feel we should now help the U.S. But at the same time, we also feel that it was a decision that was made for us. We’d like to help, but not with these politics.”

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