The Gallic spanner in the US war works

France and America are almost alone these days in believing they have a civilising mission in the wo

France can be irritating, no doubt about it. Indeed, some would see the capacity to irritate as the heart of France's personality. One only had to watch Colin Powell's face in the UN Security Council some days ago as Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, brilliantly expounded on peace and international ideals to know just how exasperating France can appear to outsiders. Worse, de Villepin's lofty reasoning against war on Iraq drew a rare round of applause from UN diplomats. It made poor Powell mad. Jack Straw turned a shade greyer.

Raw irritation draws the images of France seen lately in British and American tabloids or presented by American political leaders. A France wretchedly ungrateful for the wartime sacrifices we allies made for it. A cynical France riding the latest wave of public opinion. A France with its arrogant head in the sand. A white-flag France. A nation that would be "a Soviet socialist republic" were it not for America's selfless assistance (thus commented an enlightened member of the US House of Representatives). However silly this level of criticism, it confirms how France is often seen through Anglo-Saxon eyes. Herein the iniquity of having the misfortunes endured in a world war 60 years ago thrown at you as a reason not to do what you think is right today.

"Old" France, as Donald Rumsfeld would have it, is at work today. For one thing, Jacques Chirac has been at or near the top of French government since long before George W Bush re-found God. As mayor of Paris, recurring prime minister or president, he has been busying himself with his country's destiny for close on 40 years. So the man who now finds himself global leader of the anti-war movement carries some familiar baggage. A heavy part of it is his feel for France's national identity - what his first political mentor, Charles de Gaulle, called "a certain idea of France". This is the nub of the French exception, one of whose goals is to protect French culture against being treated as merchandise like cars or soap.

It may be a thumb-in-the-dyke reflex against the global impact of American culture through film and entertainment, which the US indeed markets as commercial wares. But it also shapes France's broader world outlook as an assertion of national identity. The US and France are almost alone these days in believing they have a civilising mission; each is convinced that it represents a universal culture with values to be exported. The rivalry obliges France to box above its weight. At times, it also tempts the French to believe they speak for Europe. One result is frequent dust-ups with the US, where the style of the Bush presidency has clearly offended French taste rather more than it has upset political minds in Britain.

The Iraq stand-off is the biggest transatlantic scrap in recent times. But why has France become so hugely involved? Those of suspicious mind, who appear to represent a good spread of world opinion, point straight to oil. Iraq has the world's second-largest reserves of oil, so it makes sense that the US should want war in order to take control of Iraqi oil; while France and Russia reject war in order to profit from options their oil companies hold to develop roughly 25 per cent of known Iraqi reserves.

France does have a tangled history in Iraq. Starting in the early 1970s after General de Gaulle's departure, it settled on Iraq as a main oil supplier - in return for which it supplied Baghdad not only with arms (as has almost everyone else) but with a pair of atomic reactors, the most powerful of which Israel destroyed in a 1981 bombing raid. The Baghdad connection, which has long thrived with Saddam Hussein in power, was part of a pro-Arab policy tilt that has shaped French diplomacy in the Middle East and to this day riles Israel - even though France shed its alliance with Iraq at the time of the first Gulf war.

If oil is an element in the current war imbroglio, it seems fair to call it a secondary one. Look behind France's Security Council tussle with America and you will first find the French conviction that the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the real priority in the Middle East, not the crushing of Iraq. Here at least France and Britain may concur, though Tony Blair can hardly say it too loudly, now that his sights are set on Iraq.

As a principal in the Iraq fray, Chirac was curiously slow to enter it. It was as if he hadn't quite realised that his re-election last year with a centre-right government at his command had freed him to take the world stage after years of stifled cohabitation with the left. Gerhard Schroder of Germany was on stage well before him, acting surprisingly un-German last autumn by saying a flat "no" to American plans for war. Only since the New Year has Chirac emerged from the shadows and taken the lead from the German chancellor. He has talked Russia into backing Germany and France, and the trio have gathered more support in the Security Council than America and Britain can muster.

Chirac's watchword is: "There is an alternative to war . . . War is always an admission of failure." France believes that the "preventive war" proposed by Bush and his counsellors violates international law. Saddam is bad and needs to go, France says, but let's not ignore western principles in order to crush Iraq by force. To do so threatens international anarchy. What comeback will we have when one fine day China invades Taiwan? Equally, it is not a good idea for one power, even the best-intentioned of allies, to set about shaping the world as it sees fit. A multi-polar world in which Europe has its place poses less danger for everyone. For America's own good (listen to the seething in Washington), the American imperium gets a thumbs-down from France.

The reasoning not merely irritates Washington, but raises the issue of anti-Americanism, a charge that US politicians easily lay against France and have long done so. Anti-American is an easy term to bandy about. It's a bit like anti-Semitism. You're anti-Semitic if you denounce Israel, even under Sharon. You're anti-American if you denounce America, even under Bush. In the proper sense, however, France is no more anti-American than Britain is, or Germany. As Chirac, a Howard Johnson's soda jerk in his student days, says in the current issue of Time magazine: "When I hear people say I'm anti-American I'm sad - not angry, but really sad." Furthermore, he makes a generous bow to current US policy in one respect: without the American military build-up in the Gulf, he acknowledges, Saddam would never have yielded to Hans Blix's weapons inspectors to the extent that war may no longer be needed to disarm him.

What is the more useful token of friendship - obedience or taking issue when you feel it is necessary? France and Britain part company here, or certainly seem to. Hence their rift on Iraq, which makes a mockery of European unity and common foreign policy. Blame lies on both sides. Chirac and Schroder irritated their European partners when marking the 40th anniversary of the Franco-German friendship treaty on 22 January with a joint declaration more or less rejecting war. They made it without warning EU colleagues. This was thoughtless. It spoke of Franco-German pretension to make European foreign policy. Soon Blair and friends in southern Europe, plus supporters from the east, hit back with a joint eight-nation letter loyally backing US policy. From any perspective of European unity, this was still more thoughtless, as well as spiteful.

It laid bare the splits in Europe. This gratified Washington, permitting hawks to claim that anti-war sentiment from a spent "old Europe" is outweighed by a dynamic Europe loyal to America. This sort of mess is hard to repair, harder still when the fate of Nato becomes involved. France can get things wrong. It probably now accepts that it overstretched its own logic to risk wrecking Nato by blocking precautionary military help for Turkey in advance of a future conflict. It probably over-reacted by giving a dozen, mostly ex-communist states in line for EU membership a rollicking for backing US policy, branding them "irresponsible".

Chirac, Blair and fellow EU leaders have managed to paper over the wider rift with a thin compromise reached at an emergency summit on 17 February. Chirac won agreement on the objective of disarming Iraq peacefully; Blair on war as a "last resort".

But one need only compare the situations facing Blair and Chirac to see how much more successful France has been in reflecting mainstream European opinion than Britain has. Both men have helped to push George Bush to take the United Nations route rather than to make quasi-unilateral war on Saddam Hussein. Blair, however, has put himself in a squeeze that threatens his very office.

At the same time, across the whole of Europe (including Britain), two out of every three citizens on average tell pollsters that they want the Iraq crisis settled by Hans Blix's inspectors, not by war. This is Chirac's stand. He has higher than 80 per cent backing at home for it. French reason says if you double or triple the number of inspectors and back them up with some armed UN minders for a longish stay, then Saddam is rendered powerless. Iraq can neither develop nor exploit awful weapons. "Does Iraq - controlled and inspected as it is - pose a clear and present danger to the region?" asks Chirac. "I don't believe so."

The way France sees it, Bush should be glad to have this Gallic spanner thrown into the American war works. In the long run, he will be grateful. It can head off a clash of civilisations - Christian against Muslim - and thus dampen terrorism. If the US president could look past his irritation, he might see another way ahead.