It sounds like political suicide: alienate your most powerful ally, risk looking soft against an aggressive dictator, argue for bureaucratic deliberation over decisive action.
But French President Jacques Chirac's strident stand against a unilateral U.S. strike to topple the Iraqi government is making strong progress internationally -- and winning Chirac points at home.
Paris' policy, backed by fellow permanent U.N. Security Council members Russia and China, has had an impact in Washington. A revised U.S. proposal ensures there will be "consequences" if Iraq fails to comply with weapons inspectors, but stops short of directly calling for military action.
It was far from clear on Monday whether France and the United States would agree on the compromise resolution, but Paris' success in positioning itself into a pivotal role was praised domestically.
"France has played its game quite wisely," said Jean-Francois Daguzan, a senior researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think-tank in Paris.
That game has been an international balancing act.
Paris has been opposed from the beginning to unilateral American action in Iraq and demanding that Washington get U.N. Security Council approval before sending in the troops.
But the stance has been more subtle than flat-out opposition. Paris also proffered an alternative to U.S. plans to threaten military action unless Baghdad complies with U.N. weapons inspectors.
Instead, France suggested two resolutions: one demanding free access for inspectors, with the threat of a second resolution on what steps to take -- including military -- only if Baghdad failed to cooperate.
"We have to first make sure the inspectors are allowed to do their work, and report on their mission to the international community," Chirac said on a trip to Amman, Jordan, on Sunday night.
At the same time, Chirac's government has had plenty of harsh words for Saddam Hussein, whom Washington accuses of developing weapons of mass destruction and harboring terrorists.
Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin have repeatedly said that war must be only the last resort, but it is still an option -- keeping France free to support its most important ally should Washington go to war.
Paris has won the backing of war skeptics Russia and China, making it the central player among the five permanent members of the Security Council. Britain, the other member with veto power, supports the U.S. position.
"France has managed to optimize the leverage that U.N. Security Council permanent membership gives her," said Bruno Tertrais, a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research.
The success of the French diplomacy on Iraq so far, however, is not a sure sign that Paris will be able to provide a counterweight to the United States in the future, experts say.
Other factors were also at work. Germany, for example, came out early in full opposition to war in Iraq, leaving no room to work with Washington and depriving it of a leadership position. With Britain in the U.S. camp, the path was wide for France to take a middle path.
France's power, however, is too limited in comparison to Washington to provide a consistently effective alternative, said Daguzan.
"It's a day-to-day success," he said. "And if the United States decided to go (to war), it would be difficult to resist."
In the meantime, Chirac is reaping domestic benefits as well. His Iraq stance is considered to be a central factor in his government's strong showings in recent surveys.
According to a poll published in the weekly Journal du Dimanche on Sunday, 57 percent of respondents said they were "very satisfied" or "rather satisfied" with the president, a five-point increase from a month ago.
It's easy to see the policy's domestic appeal: it raises France's international profile, balances what many French see as American heavy-handedness and addresses general anti-war sentiment.
Some French were triumphant.
"While annoyed by the unruliness of its ally, the Bush administration was forced to beat a retreat and come closer to France's position on Iraq," wrote Journal du Dimanche editor Jean-Claude Maurice in an editorial Sunday.
"We have rediscovered the voice of France," he wrote.
Copyright 2002 The Associated Press