Baghdad envoys cause relief and embarrassment in Elysee
FRANCE: The man on the left in the large gilt-framed photograph in the Iraqi Interests Section is almost unrecognisable. President Jacques Chirac was aged 42 when, as France's prime minister, he first met Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. In the picture, Mr Chirac sits relaxed and smiling beside the Iraqi leader on a gaudy oriental sofa, a pack of cigarettes poised on one knee.
"I haven't seen him for a long time," Mr Chirac told the New York Times this month. "He's probably changed since. So have I." But Saddam Hussein has hardly changed at all. In the old photo, he has the same haircut and moustache, the same crocodile smile.
After he became President of Iraq in 1979, it took the West 11 years to wake up to his true character, with the invasion of Kuwait.
The Americans make insinuations about French commercial interests: France sold nearly €4 billion worth of goods to Iraq, more than half of it weapons. But the US was little better, backing Baghdad when it invaded Iran in 1980, providing intelligence data and, according to Newsweek, ingredients for biological weapons.
"He has to be more discreet now," a factotum in the Interests Section sighed, nodding at Mr Chirac. "There's so much pressure." If Mr Chirac has criticised Saddam Hussein consistently since 1990, the same cannot be said of his entourage. Ms Roselyne Bachelot, Mr Chirac's spokeswoman during his re-election campaign, presided over the France-Iraq friendship group in the National Assembly until she became ecology minister in May.
In 2000, she joined French politicians and businessmen on a chartered Boeing 737 which helped to break the UN embargo on air traffic to Iraq. Two of Mr Chirac's junior ministers also made that journey.
A panoply of literature, published by Jeunes France Irak, Co-operation Économique Franco-Irakienne and Amitiés Franco-Irakiennes is spread out on the coffee table in the Interests Section. They support the beleaguered Iraqi people, suffering under UN sanctions, but do not address the more delicate question of support for the regime. What a lot of friendship groups, I comment. "That's nothing," the factotum replies. "There are at least 15 of them."
Forget about the wicked rumours that Saddam Hussein financed aspiring French politicians and the newspapers that backed them. Disregard the lucrative contracts, past and future.
A significant slice of the French body politic, from Mr Jean-Pierre Chevènement on the left to the extreme right-wing National Front leader Mr Jean-Marie Le Pen, always preferred Saddam Hussein to other potentates in the region.
They were romantic about the fact that women didn't wear Islamic dress in Iraq, about Saddam's secularism and "progressive" policies, his Arab nationalism and his standing up to the US. Mr Chevènement put his career on the line for Saddam, resigning as France's defence minister in disgust at the 1991 Gulf War.
So there was nothing surprising about three deputies from the National Assembly flying to Baghdad at the weekend in the hope of convincing the Iraqis to accept unconditional UN weapons inspection.
It would be presumptuous to think their trip tipped the balance, but by the time Messieurs Thierry Mariani, Éric Diard and Didier Julia returned last night, there was intense relief and embarrassment in Paris.
Relief, as expressed by the Foreign Minister, Mr Dominique de Villepin, that "Saddam Hussein must now be taken at his word" and that weapons inspections "should now be able to move very quickly"; embarrassment at three deputies from Mr Chirac's UMP party posing in front of the omnipresent Saddam photos.
There must have been gnashing of teeth in the Quai d'Orsay and Élysée Palace when Mr Mariani told reporters that he and his colleagues were "totally aligned with Iraq policy as defined by Jacques Chirac". The three said they "took care to emphasise before our Iraqi interlocutors that there was no difference between our point of view and that of the President of the Republic". Now the French press are scrambling to find out who paid the €80,000 for their charter flight.
The Foreign Ministry said the "personal initiative of a few deputies" was "unwelcome". The presidential palace was silent for two days, then declared its "intense displeasure at this untimely attitude".
It was possible that France was playing both sides - threatening an ultimatum at the UN while holding out a hand to Baghdad - the retired French ambassador and president of "Amitiés Franco-Irakiennes", Mr Marc Bonnefous, said.
"Nothing is worse than locking yourself into a single option," he added. Saddam Hussein would certainly agree.