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French connection

International | FRANCE: Will pomp and circumspection at Normandy revive a Bush-Chirac alliance soured by differences over Iraq?

Issue: "Bush: Holding the line," June 5, 2004

EARLY LAST YEAR, THE VERBAL slugfest between the United States and France pitted imperialist cowboys against cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Americans were indignant enough when France refused to back a United Nations resolution authorizing war against Iraq to rename French fries "freedom fries" and to boycott French wine.

But with another U.S.-drafted resolution under consideration at the UN Security Council, the French are striking more pliant notes. The resolution seeks UN approval to hand sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government. French President Jacques Chirac says it needs work. But with the Yankee president due on his turf, the French head of state is pledging that his country will move forward on Iraq in a "positive spirit."

President Bush will want to build on such diplomatic pleasantries. He'll get his chance on June 6 in Normandy, where he'll attend the 60th-anniversary celebration of the 1944 allied D-Day landing. With 17 other heads of state attending, including for the first time Russian and German leaders, the event gives Mr. Bush an opportunity to look like a team player in Europe once again.

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While the president is likely to face angry anti-war protesters in a preceding visit to the Vatican, it will be harder for the pacifist French to protest on D-Day, given the U.S. hand in a free France. Standing over the cross-marked graves of 10,000 Americans buried at Normandy, Mr. Bush will have no trouble reminding ever-grateful Normandy natives of the U.S. sacrifice during World War II.

Coastal Normandy, however, might as well be an island. French opinion at large remains fiercely critical of Mr. Bush. Witness, for a recent example, the French press adulation for filmmaker Michael Moore. The Michigan radical won a top award at the Cannes Film Festival for his anti-Bush documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11.

Describing Mr. Bush as the "most jeered Texan on the planet," leftist daily Libération praised Mr. Moore in a May 24 piece for what it lauded as the filmmaker's examination of the president's "Iraqi crusade that's killed thousands." National communist paper L'Humanité lobbed similar grenades in a May 15 editorial: "The war, the occupation and the [prison] torture in Iraq disqualify the president from representing the American soldiers who helped the French Resistance liberate France in 1944."

Right-of-center Le Figaro took a pitying tone, saying France should help U.S. fortunes deflated by the Abu Ghraib prison abuse and Shiite insurgency. Its writers segued into a May 25 Q & A with foreign minister Michel Barnier with this: "With the coalition's troubles and an approaching Nov. 2 election, George W. Bush needs to rebuild international consensus. France ... is inclined to play a constructive role."

Mr. Barnier himself praised the U.S. role in D-Day and said he hoped to ease Americans' distrust of the French. But he couldn't resist hinting the French bore little blame in the breakdown of international relations. "We don't want to lecture anyone," he said, "but we hope everyone draws lessons from what's happened."

Even as the French belittled the American president's war in Iraq, they braced for possible terrorist attacks at home during the largest ever D-Day celebration. Authorities raised the terror threat level to red in late May, the second highest in its four-tier meter. Mr. Bush, meanwhile, steered clear of needling the French and tackled the issue at hand: making sure a free Iraq takes power June 30.

"What President Chirac and others have said is they want to make sure that the transfer of sovereignty to the interim government is a real transfer," he said on May 25, after a phone conversation with the French president. "And that's what we want. We want there to be a complete and real transfer of sovereignty, so that the Iraqi citizens realize the fate of their country is now their responsibility."

Pundits are spinning the president's upcoming month of travel-in addition to the France and Italy visit, he will be in Istanbul for a NATO summit in late June-as full of election-year risk. But in fact any fallout is predictable because the president has stuck unwaveringly to the same themes and policy goals throughout the war on terror. European leaders are the ones with much at stake: They have to measure those winds of war again and decide which way to move.

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