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PARIS — French Finance Minister Francis Mer has at last acknowledged that there is no chance the government will achieve its target of 2.5 percent growth in GDP this year. A steady increase in unemployment, a massive fall in stocks and plummeting car sales all indicate that France has not escaped the economic slowdown that has hit nearly all developed countries.

Taking into account the enormous financial burdens the state must shoulder in fields such as health care and retirement pensions, it will be extremely difficult for Paris to abide by the European Union rule limiting public debt to 3 percent of the budget.

It seems likely that the promise made last year by President Jacques Chirac to reduce income tax over a five-year period will be impossible to keep. If you add the fact that Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has just gotten the National Assembly — where he enjoys a huge majority — to pass an electoral reform designed to slash the representation of all parties except the Gaullists and the Socialists, and that signs of social unrest are multiplying, it will be no surprise if he starts losing ground in the polls.

In contrast, Chirac’s popularity is climbing, reaching a 61 percent approval rating — extremely high for a man who won only 19 percent of the vote in the first round of last year’s presidential election.

The explanation for his success is clear: Polls show that the French, like a huge majority of the world’s people, strongly disapprove of a U.S.-led war against Iraq. In contrast to the 71 percent who approved France’s participation in the Persian Gulf War in January 1991, 76 percent of the French now oppose any military action against Iraq.

The disparity between attitudes then and now demonstrates that a general fear of war and of the terrorist attacks it could provoke are not the only reasons for French opposition. U.S. President George W. Bush has failed to convince the French people that a war — in which tens of thousands of Iraqis could die — is the only way to liberate that country’s people and neutralize President Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

Not only has Chirac taken a strong stand against a U.S. preemptive attack, he has also played a major role in diplomatic efforts aimed at at least postponing military action. Particularly meaningful was the outcome of the debate in the U.N. Security Council following U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s listing of the U.S. evidence against Hussein. Out of the council’s 15 members, only Britain and Spain backed the U.S.

A Franco-African summit took place in Paris after the Security Council debate. In spite of the failure of the recent French attempt to mediate the civil war in Ivory Coast, all 52 participants agreed to back Chirac’s policy vis-a-vis the U.S. and Iraq. Among them are three elected members of the Security Council: Guinea, Cameroon and Angola. Washington would pay them handsomely for their support, just as it has promised Ankara $24 billion to allow the U.S. Army to stage an attack on Iraq from Turkish territory.

Needless to say, French resistance to Bush — who holds that God and unprecedented military strength give the world’s “sole superpower” the right to intervene anywhere it feels its interests are being threatened — has raised bilateral tensions to a level unprecedented since the days of French President Charles de Gaulle.

One of Bush’s close advisers, Richard Perle, has been saying that a French veto in the Security Council would not deter the U.S. from carrying out its desired policies. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld characterized France and Germany as “old Europe,” saying their power is waning. Several American papers published insulting columns against “a nation that would have disappeared from the map” if U.S. troops had not come to its rescue in World War II. A London popular tabloid compared Chirac with a worm.

According to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s British secretary general, George Robertson, the crisis has enormous implications for NATO in that the U.S. will be inclined to pay much less attention to the alliance.

The Financial Times of London speaks of the nightmare for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who, being “Bush’s most faithful ally,” needs a Security Council resolution supporting military action if he is to have any hope of winning the public’s support for his policy.

But the main danger lies with the European Union. How can one seriously speak of a common “defense and security policy” when 12 of its members support the U.S. and three — France, Germany, and Belgium — oppose it?

Most of the new members admitted last year pay more attention to their relationship with the U.S. than with the EU, for the good — if unmentioned — reason that they are not completely sure that they will never again have reason to fear the Russians and Germans. Of course, the recent European summit managed to unanimously adopt a resolution on Iraq, urging it to comply with its U.N. obligations and saying there was still a chance for peace. But this face-saving device doesn’t conceal the gap between the two camps.

The goal of molding Europe into a superpower, which has dominated French foreign policy for decades, has suffered a serious blow. And Chirac cannot ignore the realities of a Germany that for the present is his only ally worthy of the name. But even so, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who is facing a dramatic economic crisis and has lost his majority in the Upper House, may be compelled to make an arrangement with his Christian Democrat Union opponents, who are far less critical of the U.S.

If a war on Iraq is avoided, such an outcome would largely be due to French diplomacy and its ability to convince Hussein to make significant concessions. However, if the Iraq leader fails to fall into line, Chirac will face a dramatic choice: either to rally to the American side — a possibility he has never completely ruled out — or stick to his present position. The former choice would mean a loss of prestige and popular support, and invite the possibility of terrorist attacks. The latter would mean being shut out of the postwar settlement, mainly in the oil market. Both roads are full of risk.

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