The French flights, over southern Iraq, ended as soon as the attacks began last week, but the information - including electronic surveillance of anti-aircraft sites - helped the Allies to prepare their four nights of attacks.
The limited French role, revealed yesterday in the newspaper Liberation, points to the delicately balanced approach adopted by Paris to the latest Iraqi crisis. Although France refused to play any direct part in the raids, it did not condemn them and it placed most of the blame for the US-British punitive action on Saddam Hussein.
This contrasts with a more overtly critical, almost pro-Iraqi, approach taken by French governments towards the floundering US policy in the region in the past four years. It also contrasts with the violent condemnations of the raids on Iraq in recent days by all French newspapers and by all strands of political opinion in France, from the Communists to the National Front.
Yesterday, Paul Quiles, a Socialist former defence minister, chairman of the defence committee in the National Assembly, and a confidant of the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, accused the US and Britain of trying to blow up the credibility of the United Nations Security Council, as well as strategic targets in Iraq.
Air raids could not police nuclear non-proliferation, he said, but they could mortally wound the prestige of the UN and its secretary-general and - if not opposed - set a precedent for unilateral US actions elsewhere.
In private, French officials are also extremely critical of the timing, motives and usefulness of the latest air attacks. They have also cast doubt on the neutrality of Richard Butler, the head of the UN inspection team.
But diplomats in Paris say the Jospin government - with backing from President Jacques Chirac - has decided to adopt publicly a more balanced approach. The aim is to avoid falling into the trap of being cast in the Anglo-Saxon press as reflexively anti- American and motivated by selfish, commercial considerations. The Iraqi government has complained bitterly about its apparent desertion by Paris, which left Moscow as its only heavyweight ally.
Diplomats believe part of the strategy is to place France in a better position to play a positive role in the "after-raid" negotiations now going on at the UN. Both Britain and the US have been pleased with the lack of outright criticism from Paris. The French government hopes that, in return, they will be more ready to listen to its ideas about how to end the permanent Iraqi cycle of punishment and lack of response.
Paris wants Mr Butler's inspection team to be replaced by a less confrontational, permanent UN monitoring presence in Iraq. It is also pushing for a further easing of the oil embargo to give Iraq - and the Iraqi people - a bigger stake in co-operation with the international community. Revenues from such a relaxation of the embargo would have to be used to improve the daily lives of Iraqis, not to build palaces or weapons for Saddam Hussein.
This runs counter to the US and British approach, which envisages no solution in Iraq while President Saddam remains in power.Reuse content