France steers its own Mideast course WAR IN THE GULF


PARIS -- Less than a week after Paris and Washington seemed to speak from one script in confronting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, French leaders are moving quickly to rebuild their position in the Middle East by staking France's diplomatic turf far from Washington in the aftermath of the war.

French President Francois Mitterrand has suggested a summit meeting of United Nations Security Council members to organize the peace in the Persian Gulf and lay the groundwork for one or several international conferences to settle regional problems in the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

"The United Nations, which authorized the recourse to force, has the duty to organize the return to peace," Mr. Mitterrand said. He did not mention the United States once during his televised end-of-the-war speech Sunday.

While it was announced that the two presidents would meet March 14 on Martinique, there was no sign that Washington would agree to the summit idea, which commentators here believed was geared to increase France's leverage in postwar diplomatic maneuvering in the gulf.

Although Mr. Mitterrand is enjoying a level of popularity he has never seen before, it is largely because of his support for President Bush's gulf strategy. A poll completed Sunday showed the two leaders getting an 85 percent approval rating on the gulf among French people.

Commentators suggested that despite the success of his strategy during the war, Mr. Mitterrand would see little value in following the same one in peacetime. Most importantly, in his speech Sunday, Mr. Mitterrand became the first allied leader to publicly raise the question of an international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the shooting stopped.

In the war's aftermath, French officials are aiming to avoid a regional design imposed on the Persian Gulf from Washington, with French interests receiving only minor attention.

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