Thursday, February 17, 2005

To France's Busy Diplomat, These Are Days for Dialogue

The Los Angeles Times:
The overnight flight from Paris landed at 9 a.m., and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier hit the ground running.

Sirens wailing, Barnier's motorcade streaked through the gray desert landscape into Riyadh for meetings with the Saudi foreign minister, French expatriates and Crown Prince Abdullah, this nation's de facto ruler.

French diplomacy is in overdrive these days, particularly in the Middle East, a region where French and U.S. interests now seem to be converging rather than clashing. Barnier's talks with the Saudis were dominated by the issues of the moment: the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Europe's high-stakes talks with Iran over the latter's nuclear program.

By 5 p.m., Barnier was back on his government Airbus jet, headed home to a banquet to address foreign diplomats. During an interview Tuesday aboard the Paris-bound plane, he spoke of a global mood that is a mixture of hope, tension and uncertainty.

He sounded upbeat on a number of subjects, including a dinner scheduled for Monday in Brussels at which President Bush will sit down with French President Jacques Chirac, an encounter billed as the launch of a renewed transatlantic partnership. Barnier will also participate in the meeting, along with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Bush's decision to meet with leaders of the European Union's governing commission, a first for a U.S. president, illustrates the dynamic between an increasingly united Europe and a U.S. administration that is reaching out, said Barnier, 54. He described a developing "double confidence: confidence of the Americans in Europe and confidence of the Europeans in themselves."

"We have many reasons to talk: Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, Lebanon, Iraq," Barnier said. "What is important is that we talk." ...

Like his predecessor, Dominique de Villepin, Barnier is tall, lanky and silver-haired. But whereas De Villepin, who left the post in April, was a volcanic orator who approached diplomacy with the verve of a poet-musketeer, Barnier has a more measured style.

De Villepin, a protege of Chirac, led the charge against the Iraq war, causing a rift with his then-counterpart, Colin L. Powell, that marked a nadir in U.S.-French relations.

In contrast, Barnier, a former environment minister, has been France's longtime point man on the EU, a bureaucratic arena defined by compromise and nuance.

Associates describe him as realistic and pragmatic, qualities the French associate with down-to-earth natives of the Alpine region of Savoy, where he is from. Some see him as the man for a moment when both sides are seeking to work together.

Barnier has also displayed flashes of a determination to make his mark. He undertook a historic bid to improve French-Israeli ties during a three-day trip to Israel in October. It was the first time in decades that a French foreign minister had visited the Jewish state exclusively, and the longest period spent there by a top French envoy, officials say.

The trip may have been designed to rebuff a perception France favored the Palestinians.

"There were misunderstandings about the French position in the region," Barnier said, sipping a glass of Bordeaux during dinner on the plane with three journalists. "I wanted to make a gesture. To show that France can be useful to everyone involved." ...

An obstacle to transatlantic harmony may yet emerge in differences over how to approach Iran. Despite the verbal volleys between Washington and Tehran, Barnier said, he believes the Bush administration still supports the mission of France, Britain and Germany. They are trying to persuade Iran to halt its enrichment of uranium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, in exchange for economic and political incentives.

"The Americans, even though they remain suspicious of the Iranians, see that we are doing this in a serious manner," Barnier said.

If the standoff can be resolved at the negotiating table, it would probably be seen as a victory for European diplomatic "soft power" backed by the "hard power" of U.S. military might. Barnier sees the Iran talks as a model for future EU teamwork.

"This is an example of the new European diplomacy in action," he said.