In the first week of January,when most of the Paris elite was still on the ski slopes, a top French diplomat delivered a blunt warning to his boss at the foreign ministry in the Quai d'Orsay. Gérard Araud, director of strategic affairs and security, told Dominique de Villepin that the US administration was absolutely intent on going to war in Iraq.
"We seem to be acting as though we believe the train has not left the station," he told the foreign minister. "In fact, it has already departed. All we are doing is lying down on the tracks in front of it." France, he added, must choose between finding a diplomatic way of supporting the inevitable war and preparing for outright opposition.
Mr Araud, a close observer of Washington politics, sounded his alarm just three days after George W. Bush had addressed US troops preparing to leave for the Gulf from their base at Fort Hood, Texas. "We are ready," the president declared, in the ringing tones of a leader all set for war.
The realization that war in Iraq was inevitable was not universally shared in Europe. In London that week, Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, declared that the odds were 60 to 40 in favor of a peaceful diplomatic solution. In Berlin, the German government was still clinging to the hope that the process of weapons inspections launched by the United Nations Security Council in November would avert any need for military action.
Within days of the meeting at the Quai d'Orsay, however, the government in Paris started to move.
On January 9, Mr de Villepin sent a letter to his US counterpart Colin Powell, the secretary of state. "Cher Colin," he wrote in his capacity as chairman of the UN Security Council for the month of January (see below). It was the diplomatic equivalent of a warning shot.
The next day, January 10, Mr de Villepin started a round of telephone calls to his fellow foreign ministers, proposing a full-scale ministerial meeting of the Security Council that month. It would not be about Iraq, he said. That might be too divisive. It would be on terrorism: the one subject that might preserve the fragile unity of the international community.
At almost the same time, President Jacques Chirac ordered Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, his personal diplomatic adviser, to fly to Washington to see Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush's national security adviser, to find out what was up in the US capital.
Their meeting took place on January 13, over lunch on the mahogany table in Ms Rice's neat, net-curtained office at the front of the West Wing of the White House. Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador, and Steve Hadley, Ms Rice's number two, were present.
Mr Gourdault-Montagne - known by his Hollywood-style initials MGM in the corridors of the French bureaucracy - had come with three arguments cautioning against any rush to war. Courteous but firm, he warned that such action might, in the view of his president, destabilize other Arab governments in the region. War would spur recruitment to al-Qaeda. And there was still no evidence to link al-Qaeda to Baghdad.
His concerns were bluntly dismissed. "They got the reply: boom, boom, boom," a senior French diplomat recalls. "Everything was impossible. The preparations for war must proceed.
"The message from Condi Rice was absolutely clear. The US had decided that military action was necessary to resolve the Iraqi crisis and the only thing that would stop it was the fall, or departure, of Saddam Hussein."
Mr Gourdault-Montagne also met Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary at the Pentagon and the leading advocate of military intervention to overthrow Mr Hussein. He learnt that the "window of opportunity" for invasion was open until mid-March, when summer temperatures would make desert warfare well-nigh impossible.
The message went straight back to Paris and galvanized French government thinking.
"We were the first to realize and say publicly that things were changing very fast in Washington," says Mr de Villepin, a close confidant of the president. "They were talking less of proliferation and weapons of mass destruction and more of terrorism and regime change."
The meeting he planned at the UN Security Council was set for January 20, one week after the White House encounter. It was Martin Luther King Day - not a good day for Mr Powell. Like all black American politicians, he had a string of speaking engagements planned for the occasion. But he cancelled them to come to New York.
The French foreign minister and the US secretary of state met the night before, in Mr de Villepin's suite at the Waldorf Astoria on Park Lane. It was a perfectly friendly exchange, although the Frenchman did express his concern at the direction of US policy.
Mr de Villepin, however, noticed one thing: Mr Powell was using exactly the same language and arguments as had Ms Rice, a week before. "It was then I understood that the die was cast. I understood that the pressure of the administration was too strong. Diplomacy was no longer relevant
January 20 has gone down in history as the day of the "diplomatic ambush", when the Frenchman caught his American counterpart unawares with a passionate public assault on precipitate military action in Iraq.
It all happened after the Security Council meeting ended. First Mr Powell spoke to the press outside the chamber and left for lunch at the French residence on Park Avenue. Mr de Villepin, as chairman, had to wait for the journalists to arrive for his formal press conference. He used the occasion to condemn what he saw as a rush to war.
"We will not associate ourselves with military intervention that is not supported by the international community," he said. "Military intervention would be the worst possible solution."
Richard Armitage, Mr Powell's deputy, remembers the secretary of state's reaction at lunch: "He was very unamused . . . When he's unamused, he gets pretty cold . . . Heputs the eyes on you and there is no doubt when his jaws are jacked. It's not a pretty sight."
"He felt betrayed," according to another senior State Department official. "I don't know if de Villepin meant to double-cross him, or that's just the way it happened."
Mr de Villepin denies any malign intent.
"There was no ambush," he says. "I did not mention the word 'Iraq' once in my speech [in the Council]. It was only at a press conference afterwards that I discussed Iraq in reply to a very aggressive question. I said . . . nothing at this time justifies the resort to force.
"This statement was turned round and used by the [US] administration to justify its position, which had shifted to the war option."
Whatever the interpretation, the damage was done: Mr de Villepin's outburst was splashed all over the world press and TV screens. It was the moment when the differences between France and the US over Iraq became inescapable. "From then on things became really polarized," says a British official in Downing Street. "The Americans were very cross and the French were digging in."
In fact, White House insiders agree that the French analysis is close to the truth. The "internal moment" when the US president and his closest aides decided that military action was inevitable had come some four weeks before MGM's trip to Washington - in mid-December.
That was when Mr Bush was briefed on the contents of Mr Hussein's 12,000-page declaration responding to the charges of possessing, or attempting to produce, chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The president's advisers said it was "not even a credible document". Mr Hussein, they concluded, had made a "strategic decision" not to co-operate.
"There was a feeling that the White House was being mocked," says one person who worked closely with the National Security Council during those days after the declaration was delivered on December 8. "A tinpot dictator was mocking the president. It provoked a sense of anger inside the White House. After that point, there was no prospect of a diplomatic solution."
There were many in the president's entourage who had always expected to reach that conclusion. They had argued against sending any UN inspectors back to Iraq. Indeed, vice-president Dick Cheney had denounced the idea four months earlier.
"Saddam has perfected the game of cheat and retreat and is very skilled in the art of denial and deception," he told the National Convention of Foreign War Veterans on August 26. "A return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance with UN resolutions."
Mr Cheney was a clear hawk on Iraq. But he had been forced on the defensive by sharp criticism from senior members of the first Bush administration, such as Brent Scowcroft, Ms Rice's former boss as national security adviser, and James Baker, the former secretary of state. The compromise presented by Mr Powell, and thrashed out through the summer months, was to seek UN backing for action.
Mr Bush had returned from his summer break on the family ranch in Crawford, Texas, convinced of the need to move on Iraq. He was also committed to "regime change" in Baghdad, as demanded by the US Congress. But he agreed to tackle Iraq through the UN.
When Tony Blair, the British prime minister, flew in for an informal summit at Camp David on September 7, the battle for the president's ear was as good as won. Mr Cheney attended the meeting but did not utter a word throughout.
"By the time we got there, Mr Bush was predisposed to go the UN route," according to a senior Downing Street official. Mr Blair warned the president that if Saddam Hussein said Yes to all the demands of the weapons inspectors, he might have to stop short of outright regime change. But "neither of them thought Saddam was intelligent enough to say that".
Even France agreed at the time. "None of us expected Saddam Hussein to behave like Nelson Mandela," says one French ambassador. And everyone could live with the conclusion: if the Iraqi dictator failed to co-operate, the consequences would be precisely the military action Mr Cheney favored.
By giving the UN a last chance to "prove its credibility", the US president was papering over the cracks in his administration. He was also responding to electoral pressures. His political advisers were telling him that voters in the November mid-term congressional elections were keen to see UN support for US policy.
But even as Mr Bush prepared for his big speech to the general assembly on September 12, Mr Chirac got his word in first. In an interview with The New York Times on September 8, he proposed a compromise to head off the "automaticity" of war. There should be not one resolution in the Security Council, he suggested, but two.
The outline of a compromise was there, even if it took eight weeks of hard diplomatic slogging to negotiate the final wording of Resolution 1441. The British claimed the credit for getting Mr Bush to the UN (although Mr Powell did all the spadework). It was the French who ensured that the resolution was passed unanimously - to the surprise of both Washington and London. In the closing days, Mr Chirac spent half an hour on the telephone to Bashir Assad, the young Syrian president, to win his vote.
But even as the UN diplomats were locked into drafting detail, important political changes were under way in Europe that would make it ever more difficult to bridge the transatlantic divide. As Mr Bush stepped up to speak at the UN general assembly, the issue of war in Iraq had become a big topic in Germany's general election campaign. It was a vital moment.
Faced with overwhelming popular opposition to war, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said Germany would not back US action - even if it had UN approval. He called it a "military adventure". Washington condemned his words as cynical electioneering. More importantly, the criticism was taken personally by Mr Bush.
According to his closest aides, the US president believes he had been given a direct assurance by Mr Schröder, in a private conversation when they met in Berlin in May, that the chancellor would not exploit the Iraq issue in his campaign. To this day, Mr Bush has not forgiven the German leader. "The president believes the character of a person is known by whether he keeps his word," a senior White House official says.
Ms Rice said relations had been "poisoned". Yet German pacifism reinforced the anti-war movement across the continent. It also alerted Mr Chirac that he would not be alone if he fought for a diplomatic solution. But there were mutual suspicions.
"The general expectation was that after the elections, the Germans would fall into line [with the US]," a senior German government official says. "The French thought we would bow to US pressure and we thought the French would do much the same.
"After the German elections [on September 22] it took about 10 days for Mr Chirac to realize that Mr Schröder was standing by his position. That is when the French position started to harden."
The French president had himself just been re-elected by a landslide, thanks to the collapse of the Socialist party and a run-off against the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National. For the first time in five years, he had a government of his center-right supporter and he was determined to exploit his room for maneuver, at home and abroad.
Mr Chirac and Mr Schröder had never hit it off personally. Both opportunists, they have little politically in common. Yet they had a special reason to make it up. The 30th anniversary of the Elysée treaty, which established the Franco-German partnership at the heart of the EU, was set to be celebrated on January 22.
The result was that top civil servants in Berlin and Paris spent months working far more closely together on common policies than they were used to doing. The first evidence emerged at the Brussels EU summit in October, when Mr Chirac and Mr Schröder unveiled an agreement on financing farm policy - to the consternation of Mr Blair.
"London was taken completely by surprise," says an official in the German chancellery. "But we were talking all the time. We were co-operating on other issues at the [EU constitutional] convention. The Elysée celebrations were an important signal. Chirac realized he had to get on with Schröder."
In Moscow, Vladimir Putin was feeling unloved. He, too, was doubtful about the wisdom of any war in Iraq. But the US assumed that in the end he would come round. His closest officials were indicating that it was largely a matter of money - making sure Russian loans to Iraq were honored and Russian oil company contracts would survive.
Washington was wrong. At least three more factors were in play: fear of excessive US unilateralism; resentment at the US failure to reward Russia's support since the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001; and domestic politics, with Mr Putin determined to deny any ammunition to his nationalist and Communist opponents. Slowly but surely, Russia was moving into the same position as France and Germany.
Sergei Prikhodko, Mr Putin's top foreign affairs adviser, emphasizes the first. "It was a matter of principle. We were not cobbling together any kind of bloc. We were not acting against anybody. It was a coincidence that our points of view coincided with France and Germany on Iraq."
Senior US officials admit they thought commercial interests played a big role. "They put tremendous emphasis on their economic interests being paramount," says one. "But as the situation escalated in the first months of 2003, the economic arguments receded."
For a brief moment, after Resolution 1441 was agreed in the Security Council on November 8, there was a feeling that perhaps, after all, war might be avoided. If it were inevitable, even the doubters might be involved. France was already well involved in negotiating possible participation with its own troops.
Indeed, during the negotiations in the UN, France agreed that Mr Hussein would probably fail to co-operate with UN inspectors. War was likely. So in December a senior French liaison officer visited General Tommy Franks' headquarters in Tampa, Florida, to discuss fielding at least 15,000 soldiers as part of an allied force. As late as January 7, Mr Chirac told his armed forces chiefs to be ready "for any eventuality".
That was the day after Mr de Villepin's meeting in the ministry. In the next three weeks, the French president dug in against any early action. He knew now that he could rely on Mr Schröder. He also had strong indications of sympathy from Mr Putin. Popular feeling in Europe was running strongly against any US-led action.
Mr Chirac made his move on January 22, the day of the Elysée treaty celebrations. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Mr Schröder he declared: "War is always an admission of defeat . . . the worst of solutions. Hence everything must be done to avoid it." He implied it was a common European policy, although it was not.
It was a fateful day. In Brussels, France, Germany and Belgium blocked a US-led initiative to give Nato support to Turkey in the event of Iraqi retaliation.
The next day in Washington, Donald Rumsfeld, the blunt-spoken US defense secretary, dismissed the fears of "old" Europe. "The center of gravity is moving east," he said. The stage was set for Europe to split, with a helping hand from the US.
© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2003.