The April Fool's Day broadcast on Libyan radio might have been dismissed instantly as a joke had it not seemed of a piece with other recent moves by French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.
In a March 27 speech in London, Villepin would not say who should win the war in Iraq. "I naturally wish that this conflict finds a swift conclusion with the minimum possible number of casualties," he said. A reporter asked afterward: "Would you tell us who it is that you wish to see win the war quickly?" Villepin responded: "I am not going to answer because I believe you have not listened carefully to what I have said before."
But nothing Villepin said that day clearly answered the question. His theme was that only the United Nations could authorize force against Iraq or the post-war administration of Iraq.
"I believe the U.N. is the only one who can say, 'This is legitimate, and this is not legitimate,'" he said.
If France does wish for a swift U.S. victory, it may be only so it can hurry up and defeat us in the peace.
The next day, the French Foreign Ministry said it was "indignant" at reports that said Villepin had refused to say who should win the war. The ministry, however, did not point to any language in Villepin's speech. It cited instead a March 24 French TV interview in which Villepin said: "The United States, we hope, will win this war quickly."
But on March 31, Villepin spoke with Libyan Foreign Minister Abd-al-Rahman Muhammad Shalqam. Had the BBC not monitored Libyan radio, the conversation might have gone unnoticed in the English-speaking world.
"During the contact," said Libyan radio, "they (Villepin and Shalqam) discussed the American-British aggression on Iraq, the need to stop this war, the massacres targeting the sons of the Iraqi people and their severe suffering, the need to launch an international initiative to put an end to the aggression, return to international legality and prevent America and Britain from persisting in this aggression."
Was France pretending in the English-speaking world to support the American cause and in the Arabic-speaking world to support the anti-American cause?
I sent the BBC transcript to the French Embassy in Washington with two questions: 1) "Does the French government repudiate Libyan radio's characterization of Mr. Villepin's conversation with Abd-al-Rahman Muhammad Shalqam?" 2) "Did Mr. Villepin make clear to the Libyan minister in this conversation that France wants the United States and Great Britain to win the war against Saddam Hussein?"
A French spokeswoman e-mailed me a statement.