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A blow to French clout, credibility in Africa?

By Vaiju Naravane

Paris Dec. 23. Libya's decision to renounce Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) has highlighted French discomfort at being kept out of negotiations by Britain and the United States in matters that are of strategic importance and deep concern to France.

It has also underlined a certain lack of cohesion and communication within the French Government with Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs issuing contradictory statements about whether or not France was kept in the loop by Britain and America.

The French Defence Minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, said on Sunday that France had been kept "perfectly informed of the negotiations" as a result of which Libya announced its decision to submit to weapons inspections and dismantle its WMD programme.

The French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, in direct contradiction said on Monday: "There is on the one hand extremely close and fertile cooperation between France, Britain and the United States and numerous members of the international community on the evaluation of threats from both terrorism and proliferation. We must distinguish this from the negotiation itself of which we were not informed."

France is now trying to put a brave face on this nth slap in the face from the Anglo-American duo. Mr. de Villepin described the negotiations as a "success for the entire international community". This is further proof, he said, that diplomacy and political initiatives were capable of bearing fruit. He said France had advocated a similar approach towards Iran and obtained results.

But the fact of the matter is that the announcement last Friday by the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the U.S. President, George W. Bush, that Libya had, after nine months of secret negotiations, agreed to renounce its quest for chemical, biological and nuclear weapons caught the French Government off guard.

"These talks were secret, as the three countries involved have said, and France, along with everybody else, was not informed," the French President, Jacques Chirac's spokeswoman, Catherine Colonna, said.

On Monday, French newspapers were chewing over what France being shut out signified and grudgingly admitted that Saddam Hussein's downfall had calmed the ardour of certain "rogue states" to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

"The fall of Saddam Hussein probably counted in Qadhafi's about-face," the influential daily Le Monde said in an editorial, but added that the diplomatic breakthrough showed that "more than ever, the danger posed by Saddam Hussein did not justify a unilateral war without U.N. backing."

It said the weakening of rogue states was being matched by a rise in militant Islamic fundamentalism even as "a widening and destructive gap" was opening between Europe and the U.S.

Journalists did not fail to point out that France had singularly failed to force Tripoli to honour commitments over the payment of compensation to families of 170 persons killed in a terrorist attack on a French jetliner in 1989.

In comparison, they said, Washington and London had obliged Libya to pay $2.7 billions to the families of those who died in a similar attack on a Pan Am jet in 1988. Libyan agents were behind both attacks.

France has long considered Libya to be part of its own North African backyard and this latest development has dealt a serious blow to French clout and credibility on the African continent. Political observers said that a number of recent developments — the exclusion of anti-war countries from Iraq's reconstruction programme, a costly and contentious lawsuit over a French bank's illegal purchase of U.S. insurer Executive Life, the decision to put off an announcement on whether to build an international nuclear fusion reactor in France or Japan — are clear proof that Washington is seeking to punish Paris wherever and whenever it can.

"Within the American administration there are some who intend to pursue a deliberate strategy of isolating France because of what happened during the Iraq crisis," said Pierre Lellouche, a specialist in geo strategy and an MP from Mr. Chirac's ruling UMP party.

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