France is committed to a successful transition in Iraq and is on the same page as the Bush administration on key issues such as the war on terrorism and the need to fight the proliferation of nuclear weapons, France’s top diplomat in the United States told the Forward.
“The bitter page of the French-American relationship is turned, and we want to help make Iraq a success,” Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador in Washington, said in a wide-ranging interview last week in New York. “In Iraq, the stakes are huge — the future of the Iraqi people, the future of the Middle East and the future of the relationship between the Muslim world and the West…. An American success is an absolute necessity.”
Levitte also vowed to fight “the cliché that France is an antisemitic country in which the Muslim population dictates foreign policy” because he believes it is hampering relations with the United States.
Washington has resisted handing over sovereignty to an Iraqi body until elections are held and has refused to grant the United Nations a larger role. France has called for an immediate transfer of authority and stronger input from the U.N., a position that has received the backing of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as well as Germany and several other Security Council members.
“We believe we should provoke a psychological shock in the Iraqi population which has adopted a wait-and-see posture at best and is edging toward growing resentment at worst,” said Levitte, who is close to French President Jacques Chirac. “We propose doing in Iraq what was done in Afghanistan from the outset: install a provisional leader and a provisional government.”
He said that if Paris’s ideas were taken into account, France would be ready to help train the Iraqi army. He added that the possibility of sending French troops to Iraq has not been discussed within the government at this point.
But he said that even if Paris’s preferred approach is not ultimately adopted by the Security Council, France would not obstruct American rebuilding efforts. Indeed, Levitte, France’s former ambassador to the U.N., said that Paris would not veto an American draft resolution saying that the transfer would take place when decided by the Iraqis, essentially keeping the existing American-dominated structure in place in the meantime.
On Monday the United States introduced a Security Council resolution that, while reaffirming overall American authority in Iraq, would for the first time set a deadline, December 15, for the Iraqi governing council to present a timetable for drafting a constitution and holding elections.
One of the factors explaining Paris’s conciliatory tone is its clear shift toward the Iraqi governing council, the group of two dozen Iraqis appointed by the United States.
While some French diplomats had previously dismissed the governing council as a group of American puppets, Paris now says that the group has proven itself. In recent weeks council leaders have publicly called on Washington to transfer powers more rapidly, and they have traveled to European capitals — including Paris — to make their views known.
“When the group was selected, we were cautious,” Levitte said. “But we find that this team has fared fairly well. It has appointed ministers and started to work…. So the choice we have is simple: Either the international community helps them and remodels the council to make it more efficient. Or we decide that the power void continues and all the power remains in the hands of the [American-led] coalition.”
He explained that the governing council and the Cabinet it appointed could form the basis of the entity to which sovereignty would be transferred according to the French plan. He added that this did not mean “at all” that France was calling for the departure of American proconsul Paul Bremer and his team.
In another sign of Paris’s willingness to mend fences, Levitte sidestepped several questions about France’s well-publicized concerns about the American doctrine of pre-emptive force and its wariness of international institutions and treaties.
He said that with the exception of Iraq, France and the United States were “side by side” on all crucial international issues, with troops working together in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Africa and intelligence officials fluidly exchanging terrorism information.
He also stressed that France was in agreement with Washington about the need to fight nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran with a “very firm hand.”
Even on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the polished diplomat downplayed differences.
He said France readily accepted Washington’s “eminent role” and rejected the view, widely held in Europe, that the Bush administration is not engaged in the region and is giving too much leeway to Prime Minister Sharon.
Still, he admitted that Paris and Washington diverged in their assessments of Yasser Arafat. European leaders view Arafat as the leader of the Palestinians and believe that it is necessary to work with him. The Bush administration has said it will not deal with him because of his alleged support of terrorism.
“Arafat remains the only Palestinian with enough authority to impose a peace deal,” Levitte said. “Whatever one thinks of him, it is counterproductive to isolate him because the result is that he stands out as the uncontested leader of the Palestinian people.”
In order to jump-start the stalled American-backed road map peace plan, France has proposed to move up the date of an international conference that is envisioned at a later stage in the three-step road map. Levitte said the idea was being discussed and that while there was “a lot of caution” in Washington, the idea had not been rejected.
There are signs that ill feelings on this side of the Atlantic toward France, which the controversy over the war with Iraq brought to a boiling point, have receded. While the proportion of Americans who in Gallup opinion polls say they view France positively plunged from 86% to 29% during the run-up to the war, it has since climbed back to 66%.
Still, Levitte acknowledged that a smoother relationship would necessitate getting rid of stereotypes on both sides of the Atlantic. He said that one of the most damaging charges against France is that it is an antisemitic country.
He said Chirac addressed this issue during a recent meeting with Jewish leaders in New York by urging his guests to revise their assessment of the two oft-cited examples of French antisemitism: Dreyfus and Vichy.
Levitte said that Chirac told the audience that the majority of the French population had rallied around the Jewish captain, Alfred Dreyfus, which eventually led to his rehabilitation. The French president also said that while the Vichy regime was a dark period, France is the country in Europe where the highest proportion of Jews — three-quarters — survived the Holocaust, Levitte said.
Levitte again referred to opinion polls showing that over the last decade, the percentage of French people who have sympathy for Jews had grown from 72% to 82%.
Still, he admitted that France had been hit by a wave of antisemitic acts, mostly committed by disgruntled young Muslims. He ticked off a series of law enforcement and legal measures taken by the government elected in May 2002 to fight antisemitism that have led to a drastic reduction in the number of incidents during the last year.
“Our policy can be summarized by Rudy Giuliani’s motto: zero tolerance,” Levitte said.
He dismissed the charge that the growing Muslim population in France was a reason behind Paris’s traditionally pro-Arab foreign policy, arguing that the allegation stemmed from an American failure to grasp the deeply secular dimension of French society.
“That Muslims make up 8% of the Muslim population and Islam is the second religion in France is a fact,” he said. “But France is fundamentally secular, and it is in our genes to preserve the strict separation between the state and religion, which is individual…. I believe this separation is totally underestimated in the U.S. because there is no such separation here. So the religious factor does not weigh on policy decisions.”