Fickle finger of France

Posted: Mar 20, 2003 12:00 AM

Were we double-crossed? "Yes," said U.S. Ambassador to France Howard Leach in a Tuesday morning phone call with me.

Leach was responding to my question about a report that Secretary of State Colin Powell had thought there was an understanding between him and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin on U.N. Resolution 1441. The New York Times quoted Powell's response as: "Don't vote for the first (resolution), unless you are prepared to vote for the second."

"Clearly, de Villepin concurred with" that understanding, Leach said.

Leach added that France and the United States essentially wrote Resolution 1441. The French "literally looked at every single word. In one 24-hour period, they were debating to use the word 'and' and the word 'or'." Leach doesn't understand how France could support a carefully laid-out disarmament resolution without the will to enforce it. Here are some other views from Leach:

Will the U.S. government retaliate economically?

No. "Retaliation begets retaliation," he replied. It's important to remember there are "millions of jobs at stake on both sides of the Atlantic that are pending on this (the U.S.-France) relationship."

What do you say to Americans who want to boycott French goods and travel?

"That's entirely an individual decision. I'm not giving people recommendations."

Are French businesses feeling any pain?

"I don't think French businesses are feeling the pain, yet."

What about the spate of French jokes?

"Those are unfortunate because I think some of them are pretty unkind. We would not like to have somebody saying things like that about the United States."

Has there been a failure in U.S. diplomacy?

Au contraire, the French have damaged themselves diplomatically. Leach noted that French President Jacques Chirac has undercut France's relations with the United Kingdom. "Chirac has done major damage to the European Union," he said. France bullied smaller European countries, friendly to the United States, by threatening to bar their admission into the European Union.

The United States, on the other hand, believes that U.N. resolutions should mean something.

Would the Bush administration have fared better if, for example, Bush had supported the international Kyoto global warming pact?

Pas de tout. Leach noted that Kyoto had "draconian" penalties and terms against the United States: "If (Kyoto) had the same terms against France or Germany or England or Russia, they would have taken the same position and said we can't live with this."

What is the worst thing France has done?

"The worst thing it did was to come out and tell the world we are going to veto under any circumstance," Leach replied. That "sabotaged" the whole process, and made it impossible for the United States to win a majority of votes, he said.

Worse, by signaling that it would not authorize force, "All France did, in my opinion, is make military action more likely."

Why is France doing this?

"The French have a history of protecting Iraq. Why, I don't know."

Before becoming ambassador, Leach was a prominent San Francisco businessman and GOP donor. He arrived in Paris embracing the fraternite between France and America. He fondly remembers the outpouring of support the U.S. embassy enjoyed following Sept. 11. But he has seen disappointment in France's behavior turn to anger and camaraderie devolve into distrust.

When this is over, will France have a part in reconstructing Iraq?

That, Leach said, the United Nations will decide. He added: "Would France like a role? Yes. Will they have a role? I don't know."