Throughout a centuries-old friendship, France and the United States have stood together on most issues of international policy and security. And that enduring alliance will carry the two countries through the tensions that have tested the friendship over the past two years.

That message of conciliation and hope was delivered on April 29 by Jean-David Levitte, French ambassador to the United States, who visited Fordham University on the invitation of Pierre de Charentenay, S.J., Ph.D., Fordham University’s Loyola Chair in the Humanities. As part of his campus visit, Levitte presented a lecture titled “The United States and France in a World Transformed” to approximately 450 students and administrators in the McGinley Center Ballroom.

“France and America are privileged that we are a free people who can elect our president,” said Levitte. “Our common goal is to help those countries that don’t have the same privilege.”
It’s unfortunate, he said, that the intense and passionate debate between the governments of France and the United States over going to war in Iraq has clouded this common objective. Many Americans are surprised to learn that French soldiers are fighting alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as they have in Haiti, the Balkans and Africa. And the French government supported the resolution proposed by U.S. President George Bush to disarm Iraq through U.N. inspections, and if that failed, then by force.

“Then France had a split with the United States,” said Levitte. “France and a majority of the U.N. Security Council believed the inspections were producing results. We thought, why stop peaceful disarmament. We didn’t believe war was necessary, and we feared the consequences.”

What’s important today is that both countries move beyond the disagreement over whether war was necessary, said Levitte. It’s in the best interest of everyone that the situation in Iraq be stabilized and that power be handed over to an Iraqi government on June 30. Levitte warned that failure to return true sovereignty to the Iraqi people will only fuel the argument that the liberation of Iraq has evolved into an occupation. The handover of power is a crucial turning point in the crisis in Iraq, he said, and the credibility of the United States, as well as stability in the Middle East, hinges on its outcome.

“If at the end of June, the Iraqi people don’t feel empowered by the new government, if they don’t see the United Nations organizing free elections and the United States minimizing its involvement, it will become another missed opportunity,” said Levitte.

When asked by a student why France had not sent troops to Iraq to help rebuild schools, hospitals and infrastructure, Levitte said sending troops is not the solution. He said his country is willing to participate in rebuilding efforts, but not without U.N. involvement and only after an Iraqi government is in power.
“We have offered to help train an Iraqi military police force,” said Levitte, but he added the French will only follow through on this proposal at the request of the new Iraqi government. “We must be respectful. We will not impose anything.”

Levitte is hopeful that with U.N. involvement in Iraq, relations between the United States and France will return to pre-war status. In the balance hangs a crucial economic relationship. France is the second largest investor in the United States, pouring $170 billion into the U.S. economy accounting for 650,000 jobs. But the relationship is deeper than economic. There is a shared understanding, said Levitte, that the two nations must confront the threats of the 21st century together.

The 60th anniversary of the 1944 D-Day landings at Normandy represents a healing opportunity for the United States and France, said Levitte. French President Jacques Chirac has invited surviving American veterans of the Normandy landings to France for commemoration ceremonies on June 6, as a sign of appreciation for their heroic efforts to liberate France. Highlighting the longstanding friendship between the United States and France, one that stretches back to the Revolutionary War, will be a powerful salve to the wounds that have been inflicted on the relationship, according to Levitte.

“As a free country, France expresses its views. Most of the time we agree; sometimes we disagree,” he said. “But we are members of the same democratic family, and disagreement is a fact of democratic life.”