- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 11, 2004

PARIS — A more pragmatic and realistic French foreign policy is gradually replacing the defiant period of confrontation with the United States, especially after the latter’s invasion of Iraq.

The still-imprecise guidelines emerging from the meeting last month of France’s 150 ambassadors to foreign capitals were summed up by one participant as: “France is stronger when it doesn’t act alone,” and “arrogance doesn’t pay.”

The change in the French attitude toward international problems was prompted by a host of factors, including the appointment last spring of Jean-Michel Barnier as foreign minister, and the decline of French influence in the European Union.

The strain in relations with the United States, sharpened most recently by the Iraq war, received only scant attention in the official statements accompanying the ambassadorial strategy meeting. However, the conclusions drawn by French experts include a growing accent on cooperation with members of the European Union on all major issues, and an improved “trans-Atlantic dialogue.”

According to the conservative Paris daily Le Figaro, President Jacques Chirac “has extended his hand to the future American president,” regardless of who wins the November presidential elections.

Privately, French diplomatic sources do not hide a preference for Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry, who is considered less inclined to unilateral action in the world’s trouble spots and disinclined to impose America’s will on allies who fear what they often call “Washington’s domination.”

The formal statement by Mr. Chirac as he bade farewell to the departing envoys was seen by many as an olive branch across the Atlantic from an often-reluctant and suspicious French ally.

“A lifelong ally and friend of the United States, France is convinced that a dynamic and balanced trans-Atlantic partnership is essential to face the challenges which confront us,” the conservative French president said.

Nonetheless, he and Mr. Barnier have stressed the “emerging reality of a multilateral world,” at the same time acknowledging that the concept requires the adoption of more specific rules.

French specialists and foreign diplomats attribute the new conciliatory tone in French foreign policy to the departure of Dominique de Villepin from the ornate building on the Quai d’Orsay housing the French Foreign Ministry.

He was replaced by Mr. Barnier in a Cabinet reshuffle announced at the end of March.

Tall, flamboyant, and an excitable poet-diplomat, Mr. de Villepin led French diplomacy through the tangle of quarrels with the United States over the Iraq war, sought to form an influential Franco-German partnership to dominate the European Union and believed in challenging U.S. influence in Europe and elsewhere.

He liked to stress the cultural difference between Europe and America and often spoke with unconcealed contempt of “the New World.” Mr. de Villepin was rewarded for his efforts with the influential Interior Ministry, and many in France believe he has presidential ambitions. A number of French diplomats feel his departure from the Quai d’Orsay has reduced French diplomatic “punch” and regret the “softer way” espoused by Mr. Barnier.

France has always considered its foreign policy as an essential effort to maintain French influence throughout the world, a task hampered by the sheer power of the United States, the strong partnership between Washington and London, and the emerging economic clout of China.

Nevertheless, the size of the French diplomatic presence across the globe is impressive and second only to that of the United States.

Mr. Barnier brought with him a conviction that trans-Atlantic sniping is counterproductive and that France is better served by closer cooperation and consultation with other members of the European Union.

The problems facing French diplomacy at this juncture are considerable.

They include the admitted erosion of its influence in the European Union — diluted by the arrival of 10 new members, most of them opposing French-inspired maneuvers to curb ties with the United States — and the difficulty of imposing France as a power broker in the minefield of the Middle East.

A dramatic example was the effort to obtain the release of two French journalists kidnapped in Iraq late last month by members of the “Islamic Army of Iraq,” which demanded that France rescind the law banning head scarves worn by Muslim girls, as well as other “conspicuous religious symbols” such as Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps, in state-supported schools.

Given France’s opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq and its generally good Arab contacts, the French press expected a speedy release of the two captives. Mr. Barnier himself waited in nearby Jordan several days before returning to Paris empty-handed.

At midweek, in yet another “ultimatum,” the kidnappers demanded $5 million for the release of their prisoners.

The French media were forced to correct their initial optimism, explaining that time was needed because “hostage-takers have neither our reasoning nor our conception of time.” This outcome proved to be a bitter disappointment for French diplomats who believed that their distance from U.S. peace- and war-making activities in the area had given France a privileged position in the Arab world.

There is also the question of the constantly diminishing place in the world of the French language, a victim of the persistent encroachment of what some call “Anglo-American linguistic domination.”

In schools throughout Europe, fewer children opt for French-language courses, international meetings are dominated by English, and French officials fight a perpetual rear-guard action to insist on French-language translation of official documents wherever possible.

During the recent Olympics, French participants complained that signs at sports venues and throughout Athens were mainly in Greek and English. French officials said that according to Article 27 of the Olympic Charter, French and English are the official languages of the Games.

“French has been mistreated, the Olympic Charter systematically violated,” said Herve Bourges, who drafted a report on the place awarded to the French language during the Games.

Perhaps even more disappointing for France was the recent distribution of posts in the European Commission, the EU’s governing body, after the May 1 accession of 10 new members — most of them from the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

A caustic French critic commented that in the Europe of 25 members, France and its more than 60 million people has only one commission post — the same as Lithuania, population 3.6 million.

Guillaume Tabard, another commentator, noted that “Latvia, in charge of customs policies, Poland, in control of regional policies, and Malta, with the ‘delicate question’ of fishing, have the same responsibilities as France.” [Jacques Barrot, the French commission member and one of the commission’s vice presidents, is in charge of transport.]

“In today’s Europe, the first are the last,” Mr. Tabard concluded.

At the Foreign Ministry, Mr. Barnier takes a positive attitude. The European Union “is a natural framework and lever of our influence,” he said recently, calling on French diplomats around the world to accept “a cultural change” at the Quai d’Orsay and “act as a team.”

The European Union, he added, “should and will assume an international role, and if it has the will to do so, it can also play a real role in solving world conflicts.”

The French were comforted by a recent statement by Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, who praised France’s participation in various peacekeeping missions despite its boycott of NATO’s military structure.

“France is a country of strong international influence, with a long diplomatic and military tradition and universal values shared by all allies,” he said. “France participates fully in NATO’s maintenance of peace operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan, in addition to its other activities in Africa and elsewhere.”

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