Learning to love each other again

The U.S. seems to have forgiven France for its stance on Iraq. Will it soon supplant Britain as America's closest European ally?

Published May 9, 2005 3:20PM (EDT)

It was not that long ago that the French mocked the "special relationship" between Britain and its American ally as that of master and poodle. Now, in an unexpected reversal, France is claiming a remarkable global coup: of supplanting Britain in the closest counsels of the United States to forge a new, distinctly Gallic "rapport."

Having been Washington's "impossible friend" -- blamed for blocking a second U.N. resolution over Iraq that would have explicitly authorized war -- France is now claiming to have repositioned itself as America's indispensable partner in Europe.

The claims of France's rapidly emerging influence follow last week's visit by French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier to Washington to meet Condoleezza Rice, where, on first name terms, they dedicated themselves to "confronting together the deepest problems of the globe."

The visit was so successful that one gleeful French diplomat expressed the view to Libération that "in the final reckoning, it is us who have won the place Tony Blair dreamed of after agreeing to the war in Iraq: that of Europe's privileged partner with the United States, capable of influencing its decisions." It is a claim greeted by British officials with the grinding of teeth and not a little laughter.

The Franco-U.S. love-in follows two years of culture wars between the two allies in America's War of Independence from Britain that have seen an avalanche of prose, some vulgar, some learned, exploring the roots of their mutual distaste. The most recent contribution is Philippe Roger's scholarly "The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism," which joins tomes like Richard Z. Chesnoff's "The Arrogance of the French: Why They Can't Stand Us -- and Why the Feeling is Mutual."

Indeed, such was the antipathy at one stage around the start of Iraq war that American consumers essayed their own unilateral boycott of all things French -- the most infamous being when French fries became Freedom fries.

France's efforts to rebuild its relationship with the Bush administration follow one of the most troubled periods in Franco-U.S. history over French opposition to the invasion of Iraq, which led Rice -- as national security advisor -- to famously suggest that the United States should "punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia."

In two years, however, and since her appointment as secretary of state, the world has changed. Now it seems that France has been forgiven, Germany is still being ignored, and it is Russia that is meeting U.S. displeasure.

While even French officials find the quotes by the diplomat in Libération to be hyperbolic, they insist France is the beneficiary of a reordering of influence as America is confronted with the new challenges after the fall of Saddam's Iraq. Foremost among the issues leading the two countries into what one official described as a new pas de deux has been the intertwined issues of Syria and Lebanon, where France and America found themselves in concert calling for the end of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and over Lebanon's future.

French officials date the warming of relations between Bush and Jacques Chirac to their meeting at last year's D-Day celebrations and again on the eve of Bush's visit to the European Commission in February. It was during these meetings, say French officials, that there was mutual recognition of how "much damage the issue of Iraq had done" and, on the American side, that France may have been right in its insistence about moving quickly to a political process in Iraq, which was said by the former secretary of state, Colin Powell, to be "unrealistic."

France is certainly pursuing a more cordial relationship with Washington; it remains to be seen if America's principal ally -- the so-called poodle -- can be a French one.

By Peter Beaumont

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