- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

PARIS — France is ready to open a new chapter in its strained relations with the United States but without changing any of its foreign policy objectives, government officials say.

A series of official comments and news analyses point to a strong desire to end the sniping that has marred the trans-Atlantic relationship for most of last year.

But President Jacques Chirac and his conservative prime minister, Jean Pierre Raffarin, remain opposed to the U.S. policy in Iraq. This stand has caused the sharpest tension between the two countries since the 1960s, when President Charles de Gaulle removed France from the military structure of NATO and ejected NATO from its headquarters in France.

At the start of this year, Mr. Chirac signaled that France was ready to play a more active role in NATO, regardless of the European Union’s plans to form a separate military intervention corps.

The French president, to the surprise of many diplomats, described NATO as the “foundation of our collective defense” and said that “there cannot be any opposition between NATO and the European Union.”

The mood of improved relations between France and the United States was highlighted last week by French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie’s visit to Washington and New York. She spoke of “a desire for normal relations” and described U.S. officials as showing “a more open and understanding attitude” toward France.

Addressing the National Assembly in Paris yesterday, Mrs. Alliot-Marie said she perceived a “desire … to turn the page” during her U.S. meetings.

“The American administration cannot stay too long in the eyes of its own public opinion on such bad terms with one of its oldest allies,” Agence France-Presse quoted her as saying.

French officials stressed that the foreign policy disagreements between Paris and Washington are likely to be attenuated by three major meetings this year: the Washington summit of the Group of Eight leading economic powers, the NATO summit in Istanbul and the ceremonies in June marking the 60th anniversary of the Allies landing in Normandy.

The French hope President Bush will accept an invitation to attend the Normandy ceremonies.

Having spearheaded opposition to the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the French continue their criticism of the war’s aftermath with confusing statements about France’s eventual military involvement.

“The growing appreciation of the difficulties [the Americans] are facing in Iraq corresponds with some of the warnings we gave last year, which makes our past position more understandable,” Mrs. Alliot-Marie said yesterday.

The liberal daily Le Monde wrote last week that France intended to send troops to Iraq, but only under a U.N. mandate and after sovereignty is restored in Iraq.

Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin countered the report, saying that “as things stand now, there is no situation where I can imagine that France would send troops to Iraq.”

He added, “We will clarify our position once a government has been formed in Iraq.”

The U.S.-led coalition plans to transfer power to Iraqis by July 1.

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