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France and America: Echoes of de Gaulle?

PARIS: Little more than a year ago, Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac were effusive in complimenting each other on their initiatives to stop the Bosnian war. In December, 1995, French foreign minister Hervé de Charette announced a "reorientation" of relations with NATO, from which France under General Charles de Gaulle had, for all practical purposes, withdrawn 30 years before. France again took its seat at meetings of NATO defense ministers, without, to be sure, suggesting reintegration of French forces into NATO's supreme command. France also agreed -- in principle -- with other NATO members on the creation of multinational forces, such as the one organized to separate the warring parties in Bosnia, and on the idea of a "European defense identity," implying reactivation of the European Defense Union, created in 1955 but dormant since. Finally, France participated actively in talks on NATO's eastward enlargement, and on creating a partnership with Russia and Ukraine.

Today, it appears, there is nothing left of Franco-American goodwill. Relations between the two allies have entered one of those periods of tension which have flared many times since World War II's close. The United States vetoed reelection, advocated by France, of UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, arguing that it wanted to "enlarge the role" of the general secretary in reforming the world body. (On both sides this spat was rather paradoxical, if one remembers that de Gaulle wanted to diminish as much as possible the powers of the UN, to which he contemptuously referred to as a "thingamajig", and that America owes over a billion dollars in past due contributions to the UN.)

At the same time, Washington doesn't even want to hear any talk about conferring on a European, as France demands, command of the allied fleet in the Mediterranean. Who, indeed, can imagine America's Senate agreeing that a foreigner might hold in his hands the fate of the prestigious 6th Fleet, the most powerful naval armada in the world? Also simultaneously, the United States has made it clear that no one will be able, in Africa or elsewhere, to follow a policy that excludes the United States. Yet America demands that it should be left alone to put back on track the delicate Israeli-Palestinian peace process, in jeopardy since the assassination of Yitzak Rabin and the Israeli right's return to power in Jerusalem.

Here is a budding feud that was exaggerated by the media. General de Gaulle is no longer here, and no real rupture between Paris and Washington is on the horizon, even if on some issues -- Rwanda and Zaire, for example -- the views of the two governments are at opposite poles. But recent tiffs point to fundamental differences with respect to how both countries view NATO. General de Gaulle and his successors have never given up the idea of conducting a foreign policy independent of America. They have always viewed European unity as a means to such a policy, to the extent that, union being strength, it can serve to reduce the disequilibrium of power between the United States and its allies across the Atlantic.