France reached out to repair its tattered relationship with the United States yesterday, as President Jacques Chirac called President Bush for their first conversation in more than two months.
Chirac, his spokeswoman said, told Bush he is pleased Saddam Hussein's government has crumbled in Iraq and glad the war has been short, noting that he is willing to be "pragmatic" about arrangements for postwar reconstruction. In Brussels, France also dropped its longstanding resistance to the NATO alliance formally taking over the international security force in Afghanistan, an agreement that French and U.S. officials said will be announced today.
Speaking for Bush, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer called the 20-minute conversation "wide-ranging" and "businesslike." He said Bush intends to travel to France in June for the G-7 summit of the world's leading industrial powers.
Despite the glimmers of rapprochement, deep resentment remains inside the Bush administration over French opposition to the Iraq war at the United Nations and at NATO. Senior U.S. defense and foreign policy officials plan to meet at the White House on Thursday to discuss the future of the U.S.-French relationship; proposals include trying to limit French power in NATO decision-making -- long advocated by defense hawks -- and French participation in Iraq's reconstruction.
"What the French did . . . was serious, and, yes, it is a problem," said a senior administration official who declined to be identified. "How much of a problem and how lasting it is going to be depend on the French. They can choose to make it much more serious, in which case the consequences will be there, and it will be very bad."
Relations have been so strained that arranging yesterday's telephone call from Chirac required major diplomatic negotiations, including visits by France's ambassador in Washington to Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove, and deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley, officials said. The deal was sealed in a conversation Monday between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.
Administration officials need little prompting to recite what they consider recent French sins. There was the U.N. meeting that de Villepin called in late January to discuss international terrorism, only to blindside Powell with a public statement against a war in Iraq. Then came the French refusal to agree to give NATO protection to Turkey, an alliance member that shares a border with Iraq. This was followed by France's pledge last month to veto any U.N. resolution authorizing a war against Iraq.
"There is no question that France, in January, February and March, played a very destructive role," a senior administration official said. The NATO argument over Turkey, the official said, resulted in "a significant crisis, probably the greatest in NATO history."
It was resolved when the other 18 alliance members circumvented France and decided the issue through NATO's Defense Planning Committee, an action unprecedented in NATO history. France dropped out of the committee in 1966 when then-President Charles de Gaulle objected to U.S. command of NATO, although it remained a part of the umbrella North Atlantic Council, the alliance's policymaking body.
The history of U.S.-French relations since World War II is one of close cooperation punctuated by regular episodes of mutual suspicion -- in France's case, of U.S. unilateralism and political hegemony, and in the U.S. case, of France's desire to lead a European counterweight to American power.
This year's contretemps has provoked negative reactions in both countries, including massive anti-American demonstrations in France and American calls to boycott French products. In a recent series of congressional hearings, administration and military officials have been peppered with questions about what they propose to do about the French. "We've all been asked about France, and we've all been very critical," one official said.
A congressional proposal to ban U.S. participation in this year's Paris Air Show, at Le Bourget in June, was met with objections from U.S. defense contractors, who said it would cost them lucrative business opportunities. A senior Pentagon official said yesterday that the Defense Department is still reviewing its official participation in the show.
The idea of limiting France's say in NATO was raised publicly in February by Richard N. Perle, a senior adviser to the Pentagon and a close associate of the Defense Department's civilian leadership. "I think we need [to] seriously consider . . . whether we should do more of the business in the Defense Planning Committee, where France has chosen not to participate," Perle told a group of defense writers. "I think there will be some sympathy for moving into a forum where the French are less disruptive."
Even if it were advisable, that is easier said than done, said another senior U.S. official, who noted that the unprecedented February decision on Turkey was possible only because 18 of NATO's 19 members agreed. "If France has a couple of allies with it, which it does now on Iraq, you cannot use that committee," the official said.
With the war now winding down, Chirac in recent days has echoed U.S. warnings that Syria should not harbor officials from the Hussein government while criticizing U.S. plans to control Iraq's physical and political reconstruction. He said that should be decided by the United Nations.
The French side of these battles is that friends should be allowed to disagree, U.N. rules must be followed and U.S. bullying must not be tolerated by the rest of the world. "We are no longer in an era where one or two countries control the fate of another country," Chirac said last week at a meeting with his Russian and German counterparts in St. Petersburg.
But while France still thinks waging war was the wrong way to solve the Iraq problem, and wants a strong U.N. role in the postwar period, French officials say it is time to move on.
The mood in Paris is "let's turn this bitter page and think positively about what we have to do together," said Jean-David Levitte, France's ambassador to Washington. U.S.-French cooperation on international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, North Korea and a host of other issues "is excellent," he said.
A senior U.S. official agreed that cooperation on a range of issues is good, and said that the Afghanistan agreement and the fact that "the French have also not said no to a NATO role in Iraq" are positive signs. But, the official said, the French still "need to do a couple of things to convince a lot of people that they've changed."