"France Is Not a Pacifist Country"

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President Jacques Chirac during the interview at Elyse Palace

On the question of Iraq, America's oldest ally has turned into one of its principal adversaries, as Paris and Washington disagree about whether United Nations inspectors should be given more time to do their job. The French President doesn't feel isolated. In fact, he told TIME in an exclusive interview in the Elysee Palace, he's ready to offer some "friendly advice" to President Bush on how the American Chief Executive might honorably back away from the brink of war. Excerpts:

Do last week's U.N. inspectors' reports mark a turning point in the debate over Iraq? In the preceding two days, I received phone calls from several heads of state, both members and nonmembers of the Security Council, and I came to the conclusion that a majority of world leaders share our determination to search for a peaceful solution to disarming Iraq.

If there is a war, what do you see as the consequences for the Middle East? The consequences of war would be considerable in human terms. In political terms, it would destabilize the entire region. It's very difficult to explain that one is going to spend colossal sums of money to wage war when there may be another solution yet is unable to provide adequate aid to the developing world.

Why do you think fallout from a war would be so much graver than Tony Blair and George Bush seem to? I simply don't analyze the situation as they do. Among the negative fallout would be inevitably a strong reaction from Arab and Islamic public opinion. It may not be justified, and it may be, but it's a fact. A war of this kind cannot help giving a big lift to terrorism. It would create a large number of little bin Ladens. Muslims and Christians have a lot to say to one another, but war isn't going to facilitate that dialogue. I'm against the clash of civilizations; that plays into the hands of extremists. There is a problem—the probable possession of weapons of mass destruction by an uncontrollable country, Iraq. The international community is right to be disturbed by this situation, and it's right in having decided Iraq should be disarmed. The inspections began, and naturally it is a long and difficult job. We have to give the inspectors time to do it. And probably—and this is France's view—we have to reinforce their capacities, especially those of aerial surveillance. For the moment, nothing allows us to say inspections don't work.

Isn't France ducking its military responsibilities to its oldest ally? France is not a pacifist country. We currently have more troops in the Balkans than the Americans. France is obviously not anti-American. It's a true friend of the United States and always has been. It is not France's role to support dictatorial regimes in Iraq or anywhere else. Nor do we have any differences over the goal of eliminating Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. For that matter, if Saddam Hussein would only vanish, it would without a doubt be the biggest favor he could do for his people and for the world. But we think this goal can be reached without starting a war.

But you seem willing to put the onus on inspectors to find arms rather than on Saddam to declare what he's got. Are there nuclear arms in Iraq? I don't think so. Are there other weapons of mass destruction? That's probable. We have to find and destroy them. In its current situation, does Iraq—controlled and inspected as it is—pose a clear and present danger to the region? I don't believe so. Given that, I prefer to continue along the path laid out by the Security Council. Then we'll see.

What evidence would justify war? It's up to the inspectors to decide. We gave them our confidence. They were given a mission, and we trust them. If we have to give them greater means, we'll do so. It's up to them to come before the Security Council and say, "We won. It's over. There are no more weapons of mass destruction," or "It's impossible for us to fulfill our mission. We're coming up against Iraqi ill will and impediments." At that point, the Security Council would have to discuss this report and decide what to do. In that case, France would naturally exclude no option.

But without Iraqi cooperation, even 300 inspectors can't do the job. That's correct, no doubt. But it's up to the inspectors to say so. I'm betting that we can get Iraq to cooperate more. If I'm wrong, there will still be time to draw other conclusions. When a regime like Saddam's finds itself caught between certain death and abandoning its arms, I think it will make the right choice. But I can't be certain.

If the Americans were to bring a resolution for war before the U.N., would France use its veto? In my view, there's no reason for a new resolution. We are in the framework of (U.N. Security Council Resolution) 1441, and let's go on with it. I don't see what any new resolution would add.

Some charge you are motivated by anti-Americanism. I've known the U.S. for a long time. I visit often, I've studied there, worked as a forklift operator for Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis and as a soda jerk at Howard Johnson's. I've hitchhiked across the whole United States; I even worked as a journalist and wrote a story for the New Orleans Times-Picayune on the front page. I know the U.S. perhaps better than most French people, and I really like the United States. I've made many excellent friends there, I feel good there. I love junk food, and I always come home with a few extra pounds. I've always worked and supported transatlantic solidarity. When I hear people say that I'm anti-American, I'm sad—not angry, but really sad.

Do you think America's role as the sole superpower is a problem? Any community with only one dominant power is always a dangerous one and provokes reactions. That's why I favor a multipolar world, in which Europe obviously has its place. Anyway, the world will not be unipolar. Over the next 50 years, China will become a global power, and the world won't be the same. So it's time to start organizing. Transatlantic solidarity will remain the basis of the world order, in which Europe has its role to play.

Haven't tensions over Iraq poisoned transatlantic relationships? I repeat: Iraq must be disarmed, and for that it must cooperate more than it does now. If we disarm Iraq, the goal set by the Americans will have been fulfilled. And if we do that, there can be no doubt that it will bex due in large part to the presence of American forces on the spot. If there hadn't been U.S. soldiers present, Saddam might not have agreed to play the game. If we go through with the inspections, the Americans will have won, since it would essentially be thanks to the pressure they exercised that Iraq was disarmed.

Don't you think it would be extremely difficult politically for President Bush to pull back from war? I'm not so sure about that. He would have two advantages if he brought his soldiers back. I'm talking about a situation, obviously, where the inspectors say now there's nothing left, and that will take a certain number of weeks. If Iraq doesn't cooperate and the inspectors say this isn't working, it could be war. If Iraq is stripped of its weapons of mass destruction and that's been verified by the inspectors, then Mr. Bush can say two things: first, "Thanks to my intervention, Iraq has been disarmed," and second, "I achieved all that without spilling any blood." In the life of a statesman, that counts—no blood spilled.

Yet Washington may well go to war despite your plan. That will be their responsibility. But if they were to ask me for my friendly advice, I would counsel against it.