French President Jacques Chirac (right) meets Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahhaf
By Henri Astier
France has long had a special relationship with Iraq
France has historically been Iraq's best friend in the West. The special relationship began three decades ago, when General de Gaulle cultivated Arab countries in the wake of the 1967 war in the Middle East. This policy was seen by Paris as a way of boosting trade ties with oil-rich nations and extending French influence in an area which had been dominated by the "Anglo-Saxons".
In 1974 Jacques Chirac called Saddam Hussein a personal friend
By 1970 France was one of Iraq's main trading partners. Diplomatic and economic ties were given a crucial boost in 1974, when the then French Prime Minister, and current President, Jacques Chirac, called Saddam Hussein a personal friend; his government agreed to build an experimental nuclear reactor near Baghdad, which was later bombed by Israel. Arms sales continued apace, as did French infrastructure projects in Iraq; by the late 1970s France was second only to the USSR as supplier of both civilian and military equipment to the Iraqis.
The trend continued under French socialist governments in the 1980s. Like other Western countries, France strongly backed Iraq in its war against Iran. Paris supplied Baghdad with sophisticated weaponry, including Mirage fighter bombers and Super Etendard aircraft equipped with Exocet missiles. When the Iraqis found it hard to pay up, Paris rescheduled the debt.
France's relations with Iraq were soured by the 1991 Gulf War
France's response to the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 must be viewed in the light of this long-standing relationship. The French felt that they were in an ideal position to persuade Saddam Hussein to withdraw; just a few days before Operation Desert Storm began, French envoys were in Baghdad, trying to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
On the face of it, it seems hard to understand why France remains more favourably-inclined towards Baghdad than other Western countries. Economically, ties with Iraq have been a costly disaster. After helping Saddam Hussein build airports, factories and weapons, France is saddled with $4bn in unpaid bills. Military cooperation also backfired: the French helped arm a power which they later had to fight. And politically, French diplomacy has yielded scant results.
France wants diplomacy to work
So why does Paris still prefer to view Saddam Hussein as a potential ally, rather than an enemy? Many in Britain and the US argue that France's policy towards Iraq is driven by the prospect of lucrative deals for French companies, notably oil giants, once UN sanctions are lifted. This may be true, but it's not the whole story. Most previous contracts with Iraq have been anything but lucrative for the French. The belief that diplomacy can work wonders without the threat of force, and a perennial reluctance to follow the Anglo-Saxons' lead, are probably as strong as any perceived economic interest.