Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Relations between France and the United States are back on track after years of tumult and should remain that way regardless of who wins the French presidential election this spring, Paris’ envoy to Washington said yesterday.

Jean-David Levitte, who took over the French Embassy in December 2002 at a time of strained ties just before the Iraq war began, said he is a “happy ambassador” these days because the two countries have similar positions on most key issues.

“Today, our relationship is back on the right track,” Mr. Levitte told editors and reporters at The Washington Times. “These are not only words; these are deeds.”

His comments on Lebanon’s political crisis, Syria’s behavior, Iran’s nuclear program and its larger role in the Middle East were almost identical to the Bush administration’s positions.

“We share the frustration of the United States, and for the time being, we have decided not to maintain a high-level dialogue with Syria,” he said, citing Damascus’ continued interference in Lebanon.

“There is not much difference between Washington and Paris,” he said.

Mr. Levitte also echoed the administration’s recent observations that the U.N. Security Council’s December resolution that imposed limited sanctions on Tehran over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment is affecting Iranian public opinion.

“We have noted in the Iranian media the beginning of a debate about the situation that Iran is in now — more isolation and confrontation,” Mr. Levitte said.

The resolution gave Tehran two months to respond, but it is not clear what the consequences might be if it does not.

Mr. Levitte declined to comment on the situation in Iraq, saying only that the French Embassy in Baghdad is urging the country’s leaders to think about their children’s future when making decisions.

Regarding withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign forces from Iraq, he said France is advocating “a perspective,” rather than a timetable, that would put just enough pressure on the Iraqi government to get its act together and start improving security.

French political observers expect a close election in April between the conservative candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, and socialist Segolene Royal, the first woman to run for France’s president.

Even though Mr. Sarkozy has promised to improve relations with the United States, Mr. Levitte predicted “a lot of continuity in the key elements of our foreign policy.” The European Union will remain “our first priority,” followed by the trans-Atlantic relationship.

“Don’t expect major changes,” he said. “General [Charles] de Gaulle has a legacy that is still the inspiration for all leaders of the French republic, whatever their political party is.”

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right presidential candidate who came in second five years ago, is not expected to win, although his poll numbers are higher than they were at this time in 2002.

Mr. Le Pen attracted many voters with his anti-immigrant positions, which have maintained their appeal because of a series of events, including the 2005 riots in poor neighborhoods with predominantly Muslim residents.

Mr. Levitte said the French government realized it had made a big mistake decades ago by resettling immigrants, mostly from North Africa, in de facto ghettos isolated from the rest of society, where unemployment and bad schooling led to desperation among young people.

“The unrest that existed in poor neighborhoods had nothing to do with jihad and much to do with social conditions,” he said. “That’s why we have to put the emphasis on improving the social conditions — schools, jobs, better housing — and hopefully all this will trigger better absorption in the social fabric of France of this minority.”

A special “authority” has been set up to look into complaints that companies reject job applicants just because they have Muslim or other foreign names, the ambassador said.

The number of French citizens with at least one parent or grandparent born abroad is equal to that in the United States, he noted with pride.

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