PARIS -- Two weeks before Iraq invaded Kuwait, a glittering array of France's corporate titans, political power brokers and military officers gathered at an Iraqi Embassy reception here to toast 15 years of friendly and profitable ties between Paris and Baghdad.
The annual bash had evolved into one of the highlights of the diplomatic season, attracting up to 4,000 people of influence and importance from key sectors of French society. Guests often would regale each other with accounts of recent trips to Baghdad, invariably with all expenses paid by the Iraqi government.
French female politicians praised the emancipation of Iraqi women in contrast with other Moslem countries. Intellectuals admired efforts by the ruling Baath Party to build a secular, socialist society in a region where Islamic fundamentalism was spreading. Businessmen and arms merchants extolled lucrative long-term contracts achieved with minimal graft.
But a month later, as France joined the United States in sending troops and warships to the Persian Gulf to enforce punitive trade sanctions against Iraq, President Francois Mitterrand declared that what was once France's most important strategic alliance with an Arab country had entered "a logic of war." Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, expressing his exasperation to a top French TV anchorman, said he felt "profoundly deceived" and could not understand why Paris would abandon a friend that had for so long served its interests.
The demise of the French-Iraqi relationship is a cautionary tale about how the best of commercial and strategic intentions can backfire in a changing world. Powerful figures from French business, defense and political establishments developed such vested interests in warm relations with Baghdad that nobody could envision a day when the sophisticated weaponry eagerly sold to Baghdad would be aimed at French and Western troops bent on curbing Iraqi aggression.
"We knew what we wanted," explained Abdel Razzak Hashemi, Iraq's ambassador to France, in an interview. "We wanted to establish parity in weapons with Israel. Unlike Britain, France had no colonial-power complex about Iraq, and de Gaulle had shown it was possible to have relations based on mutual interests," he said, referring to the longtime French leader.
For nearly two decades, France served as Iraq's principal patron and apologist in the Western world. Following the 1973 oil crisis, Baghdad's embrace seemed clever and noble: Big-ticket contracts helped recycle petrodollars and persuade Iraqi leaders to see their destiny intertwined more with the West than with their traditional ally, the Soviet Union.
"By claiming to act on behalf of Western interests in pulling Baghdad out of the Soviet orbit, France was able to do what it wanted," said Bassma Kodman Darwish, a Middle East expert at the French Institute for International Relations. "The Iraqis were even more eager because they were interested in the technology and advanced weapons they could not get from Moscow."
Later, the enormous profits reaped from sales of Mirage fighter planes, Gazelle helicopter gunships, deadly accurate Exocet missiles, advanced radar systems and 155mm rapid-fire cannons were deemed justifiable for sound political reasons. France and the West, it was argued, could not allow Iran's Islamic rulers to defeat Iraq and carry their fundamentalist revolution across the Arab world. Thus, Iraq needed all the advanced weaponry it could absorb to cope with an enemy whose population was more than three times greater.
Even when the war wound down, and Iraq stood accused of gassing its own Kurdish population, French arms and business deals continued at a great rush. It was only in the last 12 months, when Iraq's economic troubles left France holding nearly $5 billion in unpaid bills, that Foreign Minister Roland Dumas sought to shift the focus of French policy in the region toward improving relations with Iran.
The cozy relationship between Paris and Baghdad over the years shed unusual light on the intimate ties between state and business in France. The needs and wishes of many of France's leading companies resonated in the minds of governing politicians, whether conservative or Socialist.
Dassault, the troubled French airplane manufacturer, was saved from economic peril by discovering its best foreign market in Iraq, which purchased more than 130 advanced Mirage fighter planes over a decade. Bouygues, the French construction giant, built much of Iraq's modern road network and was banking on reconstructing much of Iraq's war-torn infrastructure before the United Nations embargo was slapped on Iraq after its Aug. 2 occupation of Kuwait. Elite high-tech firms like Matra and Thomson found Iraq to be a rich and enthusiastic client for its most expensive weapons and radar systems.
Jacques Chirac, prime minister under president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, launched France's quest for high-stakes contracts with Baghdad and soon cultivated a warm rapport with Saddam. Welcoming the Iraqi leader on a visit to France in September 1975, Chirac surprised even his staff by speaking of his affection for his "personal friend."
A year later, France began constructing the Osirak nuclear research facility at Tammuz that would be bombed in 1981 by Israeli aircraft. Even though France insisted that sufficient controls would have prevented any misuse of the center, Saddam declared in 1976 that "the accord with France is the first concrete step toward the production of an Arab nuclear weapon."
The close rapport established by Chirac between Paris and Baghdad persisted through several changes of government, as French politicians from right to left on the ideological spectrum helped sustain the strategic friendship. Even the left-wing Socialist Jean-Pierre Chevenement, the current defense minister, became so enamored of Iraq that he helped found the French-Iraqi Friendship Society in 1985.