PARIS -- John Kerry's supporters dreamed that if he were elected, he would reach out to France and other disgruntled European allies and work with them on Iraq and the Middle East peace process. It turns out that a version of this rapprochement is emerging with a victorious George W. Bush.
The Bush team has been preparing its transatlantic olive branch for the past few months, even as the president's campaign managers were out bashing Kerry for his supposed pro-French leanings. One strategist who is familiar with the transition plans for Europe prepared by Kerry and Bush advisers in October says he was struck by how similar they were in describing the challenge: Both plans recognized that there was a crisis in transatlantic relations that had to be repaired soon after the election.
The French, despite their anger at being demonized during the campaign, were also ready to make a new start. The first step was a phone call a week ago from Jacques Chirac to Bush. The French president began by listing areas where Franco-American cooperation was working well -- such as the war on terrorism, Afghanistan, the Balkans and Africa. Chirac then cited three areas where he wanted to do better: Iraq, Iran and the Middle East peace process.
There was "a meeting of minds" between Bush and Chirac on the peace process, says one man who was privy to the conversation. Both presidents agreed that "the only way to put things back on track is to give the Palestinian Authority a new generation of leaders through municipal and legislative elections," this official said. At the end of the phone conversation, Chirac said he wanted to follow up immediately by sending his top foreign policy aide to Washington.
Chirac's adviser, Maurice Gourdalt-Montagne, met for 90 minutes on Friday with Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. One man who attended the meeting says that both sides understood they couldn't put the relationship back on track by talking about peripheral issues such as steel trade or banana quotas, but must focus on the big problems of Iraq, Iran and the Middle East. And according to French and American sources, the session made some progress.
On Iraq, the French agreed that the only scenario for progress is a successful Iraqi election in January, and they pledged to encourage Iraq's Sunni Muslims to participate. An early test will come when Iraq's Sunni interim president, Ghazi Yawar, visits Paris this month. Yawar has been skittish about the U.S. assault in the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah, but the French will urge him to remain on board for the elections.
"Our motto is 'inclusivity,' " says a French official. "Beyond Fallujah, it's necessary to convince the Sunnis of the Triangle that they will lose everything if they boycott the election." The French also agreed to a compromise formula to forgive more than half of Iraq's $2.9 billion debt to France, considerably more than they had previously offered.
The French-American meeting also yielded early ideas for supporting Palestinian elections. The French and other Europeans will provide money and observers to help organize the polling; the Americans will encourage Israel to move with a "light footprint" before the elections. The French side was pleased that Rice mentioned a continuing role in the peace process for the "Quartet," made up of the United States, Europe, Russia and the United Nations.
As the Chirac and Bush advisers were meeting in Washington, a high-level group gathered in Paris to discuss the troubled relationship. The group was organized by Jean-Louis Gergorin, a former top French diplomat who is now chief strategist for the European defense company EADS, and by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. On the American side were such luminaries as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and just-resigned Bush adviser Robert Blackwill. The French side included a similarly illustrious list of current and former officials.
The Paris discussions yielded a rough consensus: Stay the course in Iraq through January's elections and then evaluate the situation; frame a clear outline of what an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would involve, before pushing negotiators to the table; engage Iran in a broad dialogue, to see if a lasting compromise can be reached to head off its nuclear weapons program; and avoid glib talk about democratization in the Middle East that might backfire.
The French are sometimes described as "foul-weather friends," who show up only when things get really miserable. That's a fair description of the current situation. The best thing that can be said for the new Paris-Washington thaw is that it's rooted in a pragmatic understanding: In an increasingly dangerous world, these two countries -- so good at driving each other crazy -- need to find a way to cooperate.