Two days into the Iraq war, President Jacques Chirac of France issued new objections today, saying he would try to block any U.N. resolution authorizing the United States and Britain to administer the country.
In Paris, his government announced that it was joining Germany, the Netherlands and several other countries in rejecting a request from the United States that it order Iraqi diplomats to leave. The Foreign Ministry said it saw "no reason to do so."
Speaking at a summit of the European Union here, Chirac rebuffed a call earlier in the day from British Prime Minister Tony Blair for a new Security Council resolution on the future of Iraq, including creation of a civil authority there. That would be "a means after the fact to justify the war," Chirac said.
"France will not accept a resolution of this nature tending to legitimize the military intervention and giving the American and British belligerents the right to administer Iraq," Chirac said.
Privately, U.S. officials have expressed dismay that France remains so actively opposed to the war. But Chirac's stance continues to be very popular at home. A new opinion poll shows that 92 percent of the French population support his position, and that 62 percent say it has raised France's stature abroad.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher denied that the United States was pushing a resolution giving it authority to run Iraq. "Maybe he's opposed to something that we haven't proposed," Boucher said, referring to Chirac.
Boucher said the U.S. administration is focused on what the United Nations can do in humanitarian work.
Chirac's comments made clear a diplomatic struggle is brewing over who would have ultimate authority for Iraq assuming the fall of Saddam Hussein. They came a day after French officials said he had deliberately toned down his criticism on the first day of fighting. In a television address Thursday, he expressed regret over the conflict but did not mention the United States by name.
Chirac also tempered his criticisms today by expressing condolences to the United States and Britain for the deaths of 12 of their soldiers in a helicopter crash in Kuwait. France has publicly emphasized that it remains an ally of the United States and Britain, notably by allowing their military planes to use French airspace.
French officials said they are determined to stick to what they view as both a principled and pragmatic view that war should only be a last resort, and that U.N. weapons inspectors might have succeeded in disarming Hussein's government peacefully had they been given more time. "The fact that [the war] is happening does not make it more necessary, or wiser, or less potentially dangerous," a French official said.
Diplomats and foreign policy analysts say that France wants the United Nations to have a central role because it is one of five U.N. members with a veto on the Security Council. It has used its common views with Germany on Iraq to try to revive the traditional Franco-German partnership in leading Europe. France also has a large Muslim community, and actively tries to curry favor among Arab countries with whom it has longstanding political and economic ties.
France also believes that the world, and France, benefit from having a counterweight to what the French call the American "hyperpower."
"There's a desire to construct an alternative foreign policy in which France would have a role, maybe leading, or maybe in a Franco-German axis," said Denis Lacorne, a senior research associate at the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris. For Chirac, France's opposition to the United States is "not a betrayal, but the normal objection that a friend would make to another friend for the sake of a better world," he said.
The costs of the dispute with the United States have been high, however, and many analysts say Chirac has underestimated the long-term damage.
The rift has created one of the worst crises since World War II in trans-Atlantic relations. France's efforts to prevent the Security Council from authorizing the war have helped undermine the United Nations' importance in what a Western diplomat called "a Pyrrhic victory" for Paris.
French officials argue that they had a majority at the United Nations and in world opinion, so they shouldn't take the blame. However, they will suffer the consequences, too.
"The French, like everybody else, are going to have to start assessing the damage -- damage to the Atlantic alliance, damage to the EU, damage to NATO. The question is whether the architecture left over from the 1940s can be rebuilt," said Francois Heisbourg, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
While Chirac has sought to downplay it, there will be a serious cost in France's relations with the United States, analysts here say. Congress is considering a proposal for the United States to suspend participation in the Paris air show, a major military and commercial event. There are also numerous calls for consumers to boycott French products. It's not clear yet how much effect they're having, but French newspapers have been full of articles expressing concern about American "Francophobia."
There is little doubt that, wherever the U.S. government has a say, France will be at a disadvantage for a time in getting economic and political favors. French companies are likely to be last on the list when contracts for rebuilding Iraq are awarded.
"Will the United States gladly give France a foot in the door for all the benefits that it would accrue in postwar Iraq? Enthusiasm for that would be contained," a Western diplomat said. "This is the logical consequence of the position they've taken."
Diplomats say the issue of humanitarian relief appears to be settled, with a resolution likely to pass easily putting the United Nations in charge. The key debate in coming weeks will be over another U.N. resolution, described by Blair, that would set terms for a post-Hussein civil authority, a trust fund of oil revenue for the benefit of the Iraqi people, and the guarantee of Iraq's territorial integrity.
While the EU leaders here agreed easily that the United Nations must play a central role in Iraq during and after the conflict, it isn't clear that the United States will go along. Senior State Department officials are reported to favor that route, but there is resistance in the Defense Department and White House.
A particularly sensitive issue is whether the EU will contribute funds to help rebuild Iraq, as the United States hopes. Chirac said pointedly today that it was too early to talk about reconstruction. "We are in the course of destroying. Let's wait until we're done tearing down until we talk about rebuilding," he said.