Monday, December 15, 2003

Zut Alors!

What can explain this sudden outbreak of French reasonableness? Might it be an illustration of the old saying that "nothing succeeds like success?"

PARIS, Dec. 15 — Seizing the initiative a day after the announcement of Saddam Hussein's capture, France said today that it would work with other nations to forgive an unspecified portion of Iraq's immense foreign debt.

The offer was a conciliatory gesture to Washington as much as it was a helping hand to Baghdad.

"France, together with other creditors, believes there could be an agreement in 2004," the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin told reporters after a meeting with members of Iraq's interim Governing Council. He said that if various conditions regarding Iraq's sovereignty and stability were met, his country "could then envisage cancellation of debts in line with Iraq's basic financing capacity."

Mr. de Villepin's statements came a day before James A. Baker III, a former United States secretary of state, was scheduled to arrive in Paris to ask the French for help in relieving Iraq of its crushing financial obligations, estimated at more than $120 billion, excluding war reparations owed to Kuwait and Iran. The United States is eager to lift the debt burden, which would otherwise raise the cost of an Iraqi economic recovery beyond Washington's means.

Jalal Talabani, a Iraqi Kurdish leader and member of Iraqi delegation visiting Paris, called Mr. de Villepin's announcement a "gift."

But by announcing its intention to the Iraqis today, Mr. de Villepin avoided the appearance of answering to Washington's call.

"This way he can say, `I'm not doing it because the Americans are asking for it but because I believe it's the responsible thing to do for the Iraqis,' " said Dominique Moisi, an American expert at the French Institute for International Relations.

It doesn't really matter what the reason is for the premature announcement by de Villepin; what matters is that France is behaving like a responsible power for a change. Let's just hope that this isn't the first step in a base attempt at extracting contracting concessions from the Bush administration. I'll also be waiting to see just how much of Iraq's debt the French are willing to write off before I permanently put them back in the "responsible power" column - to use another trite phrase, "the devil is in the details."