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Charat: France still uneasy ally

Megan O'Neil | Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Sylvain Charat, a former history professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and assistant to former Finance Minister Alain Madelin, downplayed the strained relationship between the United States and France during a lecture at Saint Mary’s yesterday.Charat asserted that French-American relations are currently tense, but that the distrust born out of the 2003 invasion of Iraq is slight in comparison with past moments of crisis, including during the French Revolution, World War II and in the 1860’s when France attempted to establish its power in Mexico. According to Charat, French-American relations reached one of its worst periods during the 1960’s when President Charles de Gaulle sought to build a strong independent France and European Union by seeking to obtain nuclear arms. “This agenda was extremely worrying for the United States,” said Charat. “In the 1960s the relations were not good at all, even worse I would say, than right now.”Charat called the current uneasiness between the two countries “typical of the relations of the United States and France” since the birth of the French Fifth Republic in 1958. “You have to know that France was not against an armed intervention in Iraq [initially],” said Charat. According to Charat, French president Jacques Chirac, agreed to support the United States in Iraq under U.N. resolution 14, which granted the right to use force in certain circumstances. From a business perspective, support for the American-lead invasion would have been a wise decision, said Charat. French entrepreneurs and bankers would have had an advantage in securing lucrative development contracts. However, the French president reversed his decision in January 2003, leaving the French public confused and the Bush administration slighted. “We had a sense in Paris that a promise was made and not fulfilled,” said Charat. “The question is why the French change their minds because it was very fast and it was rather unexpected.”The change in the French position on the invasion is very complex, Charat said, and stems from both internal and international sources. Charat cited the first reason as changing demographics in France and in Europe as a whole.”In France there is about five million Muslims,” said Charat. “That’s a huge power in a way. The big problem is that the French society fails to integrate them into French society.”With a growing Muslim population, it would have been domestically unpopular to support the invasion of Iraq, said Charat. Such a stance would have alienated a demographic that already fails to identify with French culture. Further, those votes will be important to Chirac in the next presidential election. Opposing the United States gave France an opportunity to act as a leader in the European community, Charat said. “France is a leading force in the European Union and wants a strong European Union in a multi-power world,” said Charat. “[Chirac] doesn’t want a world where France is controlled by other states.” The anti-war stance also reflected differences in political ideology. According to Charat, Chirac does not believe democracy will work for all nation states. Attempting to bring democracy to a place such as Iraq, therefore, would be a mistake. The effects of two World Wars fought on French soil have colored its approach to international conflict, said Charat. “The Europeans prefer negotiating to going to war,” Charat said. “It may be because of our history.”Charat said he was confident that French-American relations will improve in the future. “We have now to set up new relations. It is extremely hard, the Iraqi crisis helped show us that.”The United States will have to improve its relationship not just with the estranged French government, but also with the European Union. “The most important thing now is not necessarily [the relationship] between France and the United States,” said Charat. “It is what will happen with the trans-Atlantic relations.”

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