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Thursday, 20 September, 2001, 10:44 GMT 11:44 UK
French forget grudges in US crisis
French President Jacques Chirac meets US President George Bush
Contrary to expectations, Mr Chirac is not the weakest link
By Hugh Schofield in Paris

"I know you are all trying to stand up a story about the flaky French," a top British diplomat told the Paris press corps earlier this week.

"But I am afraid it won't wash. Personally I don't see any movement away from the complete solidarity they expressed the day the tragedy took place."

Everyone knows that the French are the ones to watch.

Their on-off relationship with Nato, their hypersensitivity towards the United States, their record of criticism of previous American offensives, all give rise to the widespread apprehension that once again it will be Paris that forms the "weakest link".

But so far the evidence is scanty.

French feeling

Naturally the horror of the events on September 11 provoked an immediate groundswell of emotion and sympathy in France, just as it did everywhere else.

The US embassy was flooded with calls, wreaths were stacked up outside and scores of French families took in Americans stranded after the cancellation of flights.

One of the world's biggest flag-manufacturers - Doublet of Lillie in northern France - said it was swamped with internet orders for the stars and stripes.

But more importantly, that feeling has held - and the political leaders have given no sign they wish to dissociate themselves from whatever action Washington is beginning to contemplate.

A French worker packs masks for rescue workers in New York
A French worker packs masks for rescue workers in New York
Thus 72% of those polled in one survey this week said military action was justified against terrorist groups responsible for the attacks; and 73% in another said that France itself should contribute troops.

That is only marginally less than in Britain.

As for the government, France backed the invocation of Nato's article five - under which an attack on one member is deemed an attack on all - and at his meeting with US President George W Bush on Tuesday, President Jacques Chirac said that France could, conceivably, offer troops to a military task force.

Left, right and centre

Prime Minister Lionel Jospin - somewhat eclipsed by his right-wing rival - has not broken ranks.

Of course it would be unwise to forget the undercurrents of doubt.

There are left-wing elements in Jospin's coalition who will leap at any chance to abandon the US.

And there are genuine fears - here as elsewhere - about the consequences of an ill-thought out and indiscriminate reprisal.

But thus far French Government officials say they are reassured.

The process of consultation that the US promised is taking place.

Mr Bush may occasionally talk like a cowboy, one said, but luckily he's not shooting from the hip.

See also:

20 Sep 01 | Americas
Chirac: Fighting terror a priority
19 Sep 01 | Europe
Germany backs military action
19 Sep 01 | Europe
EU acts on terrorism
18 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Blair embarks on diplomatic offensive
17 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan - a tough military option
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