PARIS – The differences between France and Iraq entered a new phase at the summit that began at the Egyptian resort Sharm el-Sheikh Monday.
Differences are emerging starkly despite conciliatory statements from both sides.
The meeting is bringing together members of the Iraqi interim government with leaders from the G8 (the eight leading industrialized countries: the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Russia), representatives of the United Nations, representatives from neighboring Arab countries, the Arab League, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
The very attendance at the meeting has become a point for differences between France and the United States. "France wanted the Iraqi opposition that renounces violence to take part in the meeting, but the U.S. government left them out," diplomatic commentator Claire Trean wrote in Le Monde.
The U.S. government accepted only the presence of members from the government of U.S.-appointed interim prime minister Iyad Allawi.
France also wanted a schedule for withdrawal of foreign forces to be set at the meeting. French leaders argue that it is the massive presence of foreign troops that is provoking violence in Iraq. That, too, is a demand the United States did not accept.
"We wanted the Iraqi conference to be inclusive in at least two ways, to incorporate all countries of the region, and all Iraqi political forces, to involve them in the process of democratizing the country," French foreign minister Michel Barnier said in a statement.
Some demands for another conference to which a range of Iraqi political forces would be invited gained support "because it is a just, sensitive idea," he said.
French President Jacques Chirac was conspicuously absent from a meeting of European heads of state with Allawi in Brussels earlier this month. Chirac was in Brussels that day, but he left just before the meeting began, ostensibly to pay condolences to the family of the former ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan.
Chirac said on a visit to London later that the Bush government has "her own stance in this situation. The U.S. president says he’ll not change. France has her stance, and she won’t change either."
Chirac said "to a certain extent Saddam Hussein’s fall was positive, but it also provoked reactions … in a number of countries, of men and women of Islam, which has made the world more dangerous." He said "there is no doubt that there has been an increase in terrorism, and one of the origins of that is the situation in Iraq."
On the other hand, the irritation of the Iraqi regime with the French has been surfacing periodically. Allawi has said Chirac "bears part of the blame" for the kidnapping of two French reporters by Iraqi opposition guerrillas. "France, as all those who do not fight with us, will also be a target of terrorism at home," he said.
French-U.S. differences have arisen also over Iraq’s foreign debt, estimated at $120 billion. Of that Iraq owes about a third to the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and other members of the "Paris Club," a group that conducts debt negotiations for member nations.
France wants the negotiations carried out through the Paris Club. The United States wants all Iraqi foreign debt erased. In the face of French opposition, the Iraq conference will consider writing off only "a substantial part" of the debt.
France has also resisted U.S. proposals to involve the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Iraq. "It is not by planting the NATO flag on Iraqi soil that we will create the climate of stability Iraq needs," Barnier said.
The differences between France and the United States extend beyond Iraq. U.S. President George W. Bush has spoken only vaguely of the establishment of a Palestinian state. Barnier says such a state must be "independent, viable, within provisional borders … and the sooner it sees the light, the better."
Referring to Bush’s remarks that a Palestinian state could be created before the end of his second term, Barnier said "we cannot wait that long." The roadmap for peace proposed by the Bush government anticipated a Palestinian state by 2005, he said.
France is emerging as a state strongly resisting U.S. domination in international affairs. "The handling of world affairs must be supported by several pillars to make it stable," Barnier said. "China, India, South Africa, Brazil how can somebody not see that these countries are also powers that have the right to participate in the handling of world affairs?"