- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 31, 2004

PARIS — The conservative government is sketching a new diplomatic message aimed at strengthening its European identity and revamping its image abroad amid widespread hand-wringing over a perceived loss of French clout in the world.

Foreign Minister Michel Barnier and President Jacques Chirac traced the first lines of the policy last week in speeches describing a nation that is eager to work with its allies but still determined to champion a Gallic vision of the world.

“France is not great if it is arrogant. France is not strong if it is alone,” Mr. Barnier told visiting French ambassadors on Thursday as he called for a “cultural change” in the nation’s diplomacy that would include closer relations with Britain and other European Union countries.

Europe “is the natural framework and the multiplier of our influence” overseas, Mr. Barnier said, promising to announce more concrete measures to strengthen French influence this fall.

Europe, Mr. Barnier said, “must take, will take its full place in the international scene.”

Mr. Barnier’s approach stands in sharp contrast to that of his predecessor, Dominique de Villepin, who angered Americans last year with a series of impassioned speeches against the war in Iraq.

The conflict split the European Union, pitting France, Germany and Belgium against a pro-war faction headed by Britain and Spain.

“I think his speech was an effort to assert his own profile, vis-a-vis Villepin,” said Philip Gordon, head of the Center on the U.S. and Europe, at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Barnier was initially seen as more pro-Europe. Now he feels comfortable expressing his viewpoint.”

A day after Mr. Barnier’s speech, Mr. Chirac added a new tone in his own address to the visiting French envoys.

He dwelled on his hopes of forging good relations with Iraq’s interim government, and he announced that the country’s new president, Ghazi al-Yawar, would visit Paris early this month.

Mr. Chirac, who warmly welcomed President Bush during D-Day ceremonies in June, also described France as an “ally and forever friend” of the United States.

It remains to be seen whether the sentiment will be reciprocated.

In an apparent allusion to France and Germany at the Republican National Convention Monday night, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said Mr. Bush “will not allow countries that appear to have ignored the lessons of history and failed for over 30 years to stand up to terrorists, to dissuade us from what is necessary for our defense.”

The French diplomatic initiative follows months of anguished debate by French pundits and opposition lawmakers over the state of the nation.

A series of books on France’s downfall have topped best-seller lists in recent months, and a poll published late last year showed that nearly half of all respondents believed their country was in decline.

More recently, Paris’ failure to have its favored candidate, Belgian Premier Guy Verhofstadt, elected as European Commission head, and its relatively minor new commission slot — heading transportation — have added to the sense of gloom.

“An increasingly English Europe” is being built, lamented Socialist leader Francois Hollande, in remarks published in the newspaper Le Monde.

Not surprisingly, conservatives see the criticism as something hyped up by the media and political opponents.

“I regret, as you do, these press campaigns on the theme of decline or loss of influence,” Mr. Barnier told the French ambassadors. “This strange collective psychoanalysis often astonishes our partners abroad.”

Mr. Gordon, at the Brookings Institution, agreed that the decline has been overstated.

“It’s true that France has less influence in Europe than before, but that’s not surprising” in a European Union which has grown from 15 to 25 members this year, he said in a telephone interview.

Europe’s two traditional engines — France and Germany — still are close allies, he noted, and Paris has gained a new ally in Spain with the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

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