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.
"Our Minister had a conversation with his Lybian (sic) counterpart on March 31," it said. "Indeed what the BBC reported is the way Lybian (sic) radio and media in general characterized this phone call.
"Our Minister recalled our position that we didn't favour (sic) the military action launched by the coalition forces without UN Security Council agreement. But at the same time, he emphasized the necessity to preserve the unique and central role of the UN. Thus, he stated that the proposal put forward by some members of the Arabic League before the UNGA. (UN General Assembly) to declare the war illegal and illegitimate and to appeal to an immediate ceasefire would only contribute to the division of the international community where unity was needed to face the coming challenges in Iraq (reconstruction, democracy building, etc.). So he advised his Lybian (sic) counterpart to act cautiously and not present any counterproductive initiative."
France is keeping its powder dry. But for what?
The pattern of French diplomacy suggests an answer. France is seeking rapprochement with Libya. Jacques Chirac recently became the first French president in 40 years to visit Algeria. France coordinated its actions throughout the Iraq crisis with Syria. Chirac is promoting discredited Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in anticipation of post-war action on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He sent Arafat, anathematized by the Bush administration, a friendly letter on March 20, and talked to him by phone March 25.
In October, Chirac attended a "Francophone Summit" in Beirut with many Arab leaders. Lebanese President Emile Lahhud opened it with a speech the National Post of Canada described as "a screed against Israel's existence." Sheikh Nasrallah, chairman of Hezbollah, sat in the front row. At the end of the event, reported Beirut's Tele-Liban TV, "Chirac congratulated President Lahhud again on his exceptional performance during the Francophone Summit."
The Arab press was ecstatic. Lebanon's As Safir credited France for promoting "an attitude of defiance toward U.S. hegemony." "Unquestionably," said the Omani newspaper Al Watan, "France has succeeded in using the summit for its political interests in the Middle East as it wants to build political and diplomatic strongholds in the region to confront the U.S. policy on the Middle East."
Opposing the Iraq war was but a prelude. France has mounted the world stage again using the Middle East as its footstool. It will now seek to lead willing Arab states against U.S. policy in post-war Iraq as well as in negotiations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.