France walks tightrope over Iraq

Policing Saddam

France will continue to take part in allied air patrols of the original no-fly zone over southern Iraq, but will not patrol the extension of the zone declared by the United States earlier this week. The decision, contained in a French foreign-ministry statement issued after the departure from Paris of the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, means that France will maintain its involvement in the western alliance on existing terms and an open split between France and other members of the alliance has been averted.

However, the decision also allows France to remain publicly aloof from the US cruise missile attacks on northern Iraq and the extension of the no-fly zone that accompanied them. While not actually condemning the US action, France has said that Baghdad was within its rights to deploy forces in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq and that any measures taken should be agreed by the United Nations. It has also insisted that Iraq's territorial integrity should be preserved.

When the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, announced in response to the US attacks that Iraq would cease to observe the two UN-imposed no-fly zones in the north and south of the country, France made no comment. The clear distinction between France's view of the US raids and that of its major European allies, Britain and Germany, earned France inclusion in a special message of thanks sent by Saddam Hussein which also went to Russia and China.

The French foreign ministry statement was issued at the end of Mr Christopher's five-hour visit to Paris, sandwiched between meetings in London and Bonn. Although planned weeks before, the US Secretary of State's whistle-stop European tour assumed new significance after the raids on Iraq, and the visit to Paris became crucial.

France's agreement to continue patrolling the original no-fly zone, however, seems the least that Mr Christopher could have hoped for. US officials made no secret of the fact that they hoped France could be persuaded to support Washington's position. The French defence ministry had earlier confirmed that French planes had taken part in patrols over the southern no-fly zone since the US attacks, but had not gone north of the 32nd parallel. Washington extended the zone to the 33rd parallel. While France is being widely portrayed as hostile to the US action, and is doing nothing to counter that impression, its actual position may be more ambiguous. Mr Chirac himself has so far said nothing on the issue. He did, however, receive the US ambassador to France on Wednesday evening, Ms Pamela Harriman, as a prelude to Mr Christopher's visit.

Over the past few days there has been some discrepancy about how far France has acted on its apparent disapproval for US action. The foreign ministry on Tuesday initially said that French planes would not take part in further patrols of the no-fly zones. This was later contested by Washington, and then corrected by the French defence ministry.

What evidence there is suggests France is engaged in a delicate balancing act, trying to maintain its recent commercial and diplomatic opening to Iraq, to reserve the possibility of a future intermediary role between the Arab world and the US, and also to ensure that its recent rapprochement with Nato is not jeopardised. Lost in all the juggling is any sense of a common European position. There has been no European consultation on the situation in Iraq - and it appears there will be none.

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