PARIS, JAN. 24 -- France's defense minister is embroiled in controversy in his own country for his efforts to block French military involvement in the Persian Gulf War and to restrict its role to Kuwaiti territory.
The defense chief, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, has never disguised his profound antipathy to the march toward war with Iraq that was led by the Bush administration. He opposed President Francois Mitterrand's decision to dispatch more than 50 warplanes and 10,000 ground troops to the Saudi front line, and warned that if hostilities broke out, more than 100,000 people could die in a conflict that would consume the entire region.
Chevenement has fought the presidential views almost from the day the crisis erupted in early August. "As long as war had not broken out, it was normal and legitimate that I do everything I possibly could to find a peaceful solution," he explained in a radio interview. "I retract nothing from what I said and did. I have my convictions and I won't renounce them."
With a touch of bitter irony, he added, "Now there is war, so I'm making war."
Mitterrand has repeatedly been compelled to overrule his defense minister and clarify France's military posture. After bombing raids began last week, Chevenement declared that all French operations would be circumscribed to Kuwaiti territory in keeping with his conviction that force should only be used to liberate the occupied sheikdom and not to destroy Iraq.
Mitterrand, responding to appeals from senior French military officials, renounced that view Sunday and proclaimed that French forces would indeed see action inside Iraq.
French Jaguar warplanes launched their first raid into Iraq today, bombing mechanized forces of the elite Republican Guard. They also continued their earlier attacks against Iraqi forces dug into Kuwaiti territory, pummeling several artillery sites, according to defense ministry officials.
Mitterrand's decision to commit French forces early to the multinational coalition arrayed against Iraq's occupation of Kuwait was largely motivated, aides say, by a desire to invigorate France's postwar status as a major power and enhance its position as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
With Germany preoccupied by its unification and Britain staunchly aligned with the United States, Mitterrand recognized that France had to play a leading role in the anti-Iraq coalition and send its troops into battle, if necessary, to secure a prominent voice in any dickering for a Middle East peace settlement.
Chevenement, a left-wing Socialist with close ties to the party's pacifist constituency, is known as an ardent nationalist who has long distrusted American domination of the Western alliance. He cultivated strong ties throughout his career with the Arab world and was a founding member of the French-Iraqi friendship society.
In almost any other Western government, Chevenement's apostasy would have cost him his job a long time ago. But the loyalty he commands from several anti-war Socialist deputies on the left wing of the party ensures his survival, because Mitterrand does not want the minority Socialist government to be toppled and force him into another period of "cohabitation" with a conservative prime minister.
With Mitterrand now taking advice almost exclusively from his military counselor, Adm. Jacques Lanxade, and the armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Maurice Schmitt, Chevenement has trained his contentious energies on the opposition party leaders, who have been loudly demanding his removal from office.
He lashed out this week against former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing and former prime minister Jacques Chirac, impugning their patriotism and insisting "it was time for them to be called to account" for decisions they made from 1975 to 1980, when France became Iraq's most important supplier of high technology and sophisticated weaponry.
"Let Mr. Chirac be asked about the circumstances in which he authorized a certain number of big contracts, including the nuclear one in 1975," Chevenement said, referring to the controversial facility that Iraq hoped would provide a nuclear bomb capability. It was destroyed in a bombing raid by the Israelis in 1981.