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Thursday, 6 February, 2003, 14:02 GMT
France treads carefully on Iraq
A French policeman stands guard at the Elysee Palace
The French Government guards its secrets well

The science of Elysee-ology - reading between the lines of the French administration's carefully-balanced pronouncements on Iraq - has become more interesting.

Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin's comments at the UN are being interpreted here in a variety of ways.

France's Dominique de Villepin
There is a broad majority in the UN Security Council for inspections to be continued

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin
Le Figaro - the newspaper closest to the government's thinking - takes the view that France has not changed its anti-war position, emphasising Mr de Villepin's call for the number of weapons inspectors to be doubled or even tripled.

"France, Russia and China - still on the same line," its headline reads.

But Le Parisien takes a different view. Its banner headline is "France - a step towards war".

Military offer

The paper chooses to emphasise the fact that Mr de Villepin has publicly offered, for the first time, military support in the form of Mirage 4 planes and said that France did not rule out the use of force.

This has been the official position all along - and one which Mr de Villepin reiterated in a radio interview on Thursday morning.

Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac on walkabout in Le Touquet, northern France, on Tuesday
Mr Chirac was cautious when Mr Blair visited
However, President Jacques Chirac was very careful not to speak about the issue, at his summit with Tony Blair on Tuesday.

By referring both to the possibility of the taking part in military action and appearing to rule out the possibility of France vetoing a new UN resolution, Le Parisien says that Mr de Villepin has shown that France does not want to be cut off from the Americans.

Other publications have been referring to this as well, with the left-leaning Le Monde and L'Express - neither of which is particularly pro-American - ringing the alarm bells about the dangers for France if it is left out in the diplomatic cold over Iraq.

Many commentators are asking, though, if France left it too late to take a more pragmatic line.

Open in new window : Who backs war?
Where key nations stand on Iraq

Privately and publicly the White House has hardly disguised its irritation with France's position - which appeared to harden from the more balanced, but similarly dove-ish line it took in the negotiations leading to UN resolution 1441.

There is a real chance now that the United States will reject offers of military support from a country it sees as a less than committed ally.

Domestic pressure

And then there is the domestic political pressure on Mr Chirac.

By publicly standing shoulder to shoulder with the pacifist Germans, he has - according to many observers - painted himself into a corner.

Any commitment to military action will be seen as a spectacular u-turn by a public very firmly opposed to the war.

A cartoon in one of the newspapers sums up Mr Chirac's dilemma.

Mr de Villepin is saying to him: "We're heading to war. We need to find a way out."

The president replies "For Saddam Hussein or for us?"

Are you convinced by Powell's evidence?



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See also:

06 Feb 03 | Middle East
05 Feb 03 | Americas
05 Feb 03 | Americas
04 Feb 03 | Middle East
05 Feb 03 | Middle East
06 Feb 03 | Europe
06 Feb 03 | Media reports
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