- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2005

PARIS — The French press and official sources cautioned yesterday against excessive hopes after a working dinner in Brussels between President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac.

Pundits and editorialists stressed the “limits of the reconciliation” and spoke of “a surface thaw” in the often-troubled relationship between Washington and Paris.

The respected conservative daily Le Figaro, while praising “a spectacular change of atmosphere” between the two capitals, also stressed the need for “an effort beyond words” to begin “a true strategic debate.”

The liberal Le Monde, while listing the differences on key foreign-policy issues, concluded that the gulf between the two countries could be bridged easily. The daily blamed the gulf on “the absence of moral and political coherence” on the part of the United States.

Political analyst Luc de Barochez said, “The American president and his French counterpart have always had opposed views of the world.”

He attributed the improvement in trans-Atlantic relations to the Bush administration’s awareness of the “spectacular decline of America’s image in Europe.”

French officials praised what they described as the “evolution which prompted Washington to consider the European Union as a partner.”

Mr. Bush, one official said, “has understood the urgency of the need for improving trans-Atlantic relations,” something he said was missing during Mr. Bush’s first four years at the helm.

According to an official analysis of the situation after what the French press described as the “dinner of reconciliation,” France has had to adjust to key factors in foreign affairs such as the re-election of Mr. Bush, which Europe had not expected; the appointment of Condoleezza Rice — considered by the French to be a “hawk” — as secretary of state; and the relative success of the elections in Iraq.

Thus, officials said, France has stepped up cooperation with U.S. authorities in the intelligence and security fields, wants to put aside its differences with the United States and considers Washington as a partner, but not the leader, of the European democracies.

Although a member of NATO’s political structure, France will continue to push for a strong and independent European military policy, officials said. By contrast, some U.S. officials think such a development could result in the weakening of NATO, despite the French insistence that the “stronger Europe” concept is complementary to NATO.

Commentators and analysts in France say that despite the improved personal contact between Mr. Chirac and Mr. Bush, “the potential for misunderstanding and difficulties has remained.”

They list different approaches to Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons program and what they describe as Washington’s “preoccupation with Iraq” as threatening relations between France and the United States.

Mr. Chirac reportedly has told Mr. Bush — over California wine service at the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Brussels — that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a key issue without which further efforts in the Middle East are likely to fail.

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