Globalist: For France and U.S., a frisson of good will

Posted in United States | 01-Mar-06 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

French President Jacques Chirac, center, speaks during the India-France Economic Partnership Meet in New Delhi, India, Monday Feb. 20, 2006.

PARIS When President Jacques Chirac of France visits India, an emergent major power, and refrains from any reference to a "multipolar world" - the barbed little phrase that has been a favorite provocation to the United States - you know that another Gallic season of America-bashing has passed.

And when, on his return last week, Chirac reaches for the phone and calls his new pal, President George W. Bush, to discuss the need for "international consensus" on India's nuclear energy activities, you sense that the absence of vitriol may even have yielded to a frisson of good will between the most fractious of allies.

Bush follows Chirac to New Delhi this week - successive supplicants to one of the two new centers of Asian might - and it remains to be seen whether a landmark deal to usher India through the back door into the clubbable cluster of nuclear nations will be reached. What is clear is that, competitive commercial and strategic temptations notwithstanding, France and America are working together on another delicate dossier.

This quiet cooperation follows an effective Franco-American partnership last year in pushing for the removal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and coordinated diplomacy to counter Iran's nuclear ambitions. When the French foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, recently referred to Iran's "clandestine military nuclear program," he sounded a note of Bush- like directness. One could be forgiven for rubbing one's eyes.

But, strange as it appears, the little Franco-America idyll so soon after the Iraq-spurred feud is rooted in several developments that suggest it might even endure for a while.

Here are 10 of them:

1) The European Union, bereft of a constitution, unsure of its direction, seems to have entered an extended period of drift. Plans to turn it into a more cohesive power that, in another favorite French phrase, would act as a "counterweight" to the United States are on hold. European alternatives to Atlanticism look flimsy for now.

2) French acquiescence to an expanded NATO role in Afghanistan has given the alliance new life and new relevance to the Bush administration. Cooperation between Paris and Washington on Afghanistan is intense.

3) With Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, seeking improved ties with the Bush administration, France has no desire to find itself isolated. For now, French overtures to Washington seem to have trumped the German gambit. The Iraq fallout still plagues Berlin and complicates German-American ties. That is less true of France.

4) A Chirac-Bush dinner on Feb. 22, 2005, in Brussels was their best encounter. The breakthrough has been built upon through the good relations developed between Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, Chirac's national security adviser, and his American counterpart, Stephen Hadley. Gourdault-Montagne, whose visits to Washington have been frequent and fruitful, is also close to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Franco- American "chemistry" has gone from cold to comfortable.

5) With his January 2006 speech on French strategic doctrine, Chirac moved close to the Bush doctrine on preventive war in an age when nuclear proliferation and terrorism, and especially their potential intersection, constitute the most dangerous threats to international security. Chirac's references to the use of military force, even nuclear weapons, against states or terrorists envisaging the use of arms of mass destruction against France, redefined Gallic hawkishness for a new age. This sort of hard talk, rather than French blather about the United Nations, is what the Bush team likes.

6) The shared perception of threat that was the cement of trans-Atlantic alliances during the Cold War has still not been replicated. But terrorism in Europe and the emergence of Europe as a central theater of the fight between the West and fanatical Islam have prodded France, and Europe with it, toward a closer identification with American policies in fighting terrorism.

7) A measure of realism has returned to American foreign policy in the second Bush term. Iraq has been nothing if not sobering. It has brought home the usefulness of traditional allies, the costs of isolation, and the need for give-and-take in any alliance. One result has been U.S. acceptance of a central European role on Iran, a policy unthinkable in the heady days of Bush's 2002 "axis of evil" speech when the old-Europeans-are-wimps fever was also at its height. An America that listens better is more palatable to France.

8) As those visits to India suggest, and as the growth rates in China confirm, the economic and other challenges to the West from Asia are not confined to one side or another of the Atlantic. A shared vulnerability to Asia rising is conducive to shared reflection.

9) A presidential election looms in France next year. As in the United States, albeit in different guise, there's more effervescence on the right than the left of the political spectrum. The leading center-right politicians, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, are competing for Chirac's job. Sarkozy has already shown a readiness to play an "American card" - in style (out with stuffiness) and substance (in with the market). Villepin has no real interest in exposing his flank through an anti-American tone. His restraint since taking office, on everything from Iraq to reports of CIA detention centers in Europe, has been striking.

10) Even Hollywood seems to like France these days. Three French movies - "March of the Penguins," "Joyeux Noël" and "Darwin's Nightmare" - are up for Oscars on Sunday. "March," a documentary about Empire penguins, did far better in the U.S market than the French. There are modest signs the French have come around to the view that the best way to protect and propagate their culture is to make movies people actually want to go to. That's new and promising.

The only sure thing about French- American good times is that, like all honeymoons, they end. Relations between Paris and Washington are as cyclical as the oil business. But as with oil there's a boom on and, for now, no end in sight.