PARIS, JAN. 29 -- Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement, whose skepticism about allied military objectives against Iraq provoked controversy at home and abroad, became the first major political casualty of the Persian Gulf War when he resigned under fire today.
Chevenement, a left-wing Socialist with close ties to the party's pacifist wing, will be replaced by Interior Minister Pierre Joxe, a presidential spokesman announced. Joxe, who has earned high marks for his handling of law-and-order issues, is one of President Francois Mitterrand's closest political allies and is expected to prosecute the war strictly according to the president's wishes.
The departure of Chevenement, who scarcely concealed his conviction that going to war with Iraq could have disastrous consequences for French interests in the Arab world, came as no surprise given the growing embarrassment his views were causing for Mitterrand.
A founding member of the French-Iraqi friendship society who has cultivated close ties throughout the Arab world, Chevenement stirred resentment among France's allies with his stated reluctance to be drawn into an American-led conflict that he feared would consume the entire region. His views also drew attacks by French conservatives, who accused him of sapping the morale of French troops in the gulf.
Shortly after the war began, Chevenement insisted that French military operations be limited to Kuwaiti territory in keeping with his declared aim to employ force solely to liberate Kuwait and not to destroy Iraq. He contended that this view was consistent with United Nations Security Council resolutions that France, as a permanent member, was committed to defend.
But Mitterrand overruled Chevenement's position last week, saying French air and ground forces would launch forays inside Iraq.
As he stepped down, Chevenement repeated his belief that France is being prodded by the United States toward more controversial aims of destroying Iraq's military-industrial complex and dismantling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government. "The logic of war risks pushing us further every day from the objectives laid down by the United Nations," he said in his resignation letter.
As the war moves toward possible involvement of ground troops, Mitterrand wants France to be fully engaged in the allied military effort and is determined to avoid creating any fissures in the multinational coalition opposing Iraq, according to well-informed officials. The French head of state also wants to maintain an irreproachable relationship with the United States during the war so that France, as a loyal partner, will have earned the right to play an important role in shaping a new postwar order in the Middle East, the officials said.
Since Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, Chevenement had been one of the most active members of the French government in promoting a peaceful compromise in the gulf conflict. A week before bombing raids began, Chevenement urged the United States to alter its stand against linking the Iraqi invasion with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and make "a very little gesture" by endorsing an international Middle East conference. Washington refused.
Chevenement's quest for a peaceful exit from the crisis badly damaged his relationship with Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, who believed that Chevenement's views threatened the international coalition's unity, Western sources said.
After war began, the government's conservative opposition seized on Chevenement's stand to accuse Mitterrand of waging a "part-time war." Leaders of the moderate right demanded Chevenement's resignation.
Chevenement had offered his resignation to Mitterrand on several occasions, aides said, but the French leader had refused to accept it. Officials close to Mitterrand said he did not want to weaken France's image abroad by dropping his defense minister during a crisis. He also did not want to deepen a factional conflict within his party over the wisdom of fighting what some left-wing members call "the American war."