PARIS, JAN. 15 -- France's campaign to broker a last-minute peace accord with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein reflects anxiety within the political establishment here that a Persian Gulf war will damage or destabilize the Western nation with the closest ties to the Arab world.
As today's United Nations deadline authorizing the use of force to evict Iraqi troops from Kuwait drew near, French President Francois Mitterrand and his government engaged in a frantic round of diplomatic contacts, trying to exhaust all possibilities that might prevent war.
Their efforts failed today when both Iraq and the U.N. Security Council refused to embrace a French peace proposal that offered Saddam such inducements as an international Middle East peace conference and U.N. protection of withdrawing troops in return for a promise to quit Kuwait -- even at the risk of antagonizing the United States and other allies.
France's maverick instincts are largely rooted in fears about surging Islamic fundamentalist fervor in its former North African colonies, the risk of terrorism rising among the 4 million Moslems living in France and concern that one of its biggest trading partners -- Iraq -- may be wiped off the map. France also resisted following Washington's lead, instead taking an independent stand when it believed the United States was pursuing mistaken policies.
At a press conference last week, Mitterrand berated the United States for failing to recognize the need for an international conference on the Middle East that would address such regional issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III have repeatedly said they oppose a conference now because it would be seen as meeting Saddam's claim that his occupation of Kuwait is linked to Israel's presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and because talks could be seen as a reward for aggression. But in telephone calls to Bush -- with whom he is said to enjoy a candid, congenial relationship -- Mitterrand has bluntly declared that Bush should not consider a Middle East parley as a reward for aggression but rather as an instrument to serve U.S. interests, presidential aides said.
Mitterrand was also dismayed by Bush's recent letter to Saddam, which was spurned by Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz during his meeting last week in Geneva with Baker. According to French officials, Mitterrand deplored its menacing tone and warnings about potential destruction, which he believed would only convince Baghdad that the real U.S. objective was the death of Saddam and his regime.
France has insisted that any Western military action in the gulf should seek to liberate Kuwait, not destroy Iraq. Mitterrand declared last week that any participation by the 10,000 French troops in Saudi Arabia will be limited to that purpose.
French determination to preserve the integrity of Iraq is based on more than 15 years of lucrative commercial relations, a period during which France became Iraq's biggest arms supplier after the Soviet Union and Iraq evolved into one of France's primary oil sources.
French strategists also are said to fear that Iraq's dismemberment would would aggravate anti-Western feelings among young, disaffected Arabs in places like Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.