rance's President Jacques Chirac is "determined" to prevent the United States from removing the Iraqi regime of President Saddam Hussein by force.
Sources in Paris insist that Chirac has decided to use the French veto in the United Nations Security Council, if necessary, to derail American plans for an attack on Iraq.
"If you ask me what will happen next I can tell you there will be no war," a senior French official told me on condition of anonymity. "President Chirac has taken personal charge of the Iraq dossier with the clear aim of preventing an unnecessary war that could destabilize the whole of the Middle East."
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin says the status quo in Iraq is "unsustainable." But he insists that the use of force is not the only means of changing it.
On the basis of interviews with various sources in Paris, it looks as if the French leader's plan is devised in two phases.
The first phase consists of efforts to prevent the passage of a Security Council resolution that would give the U.S. a legal basis for removing Saddam Hussein from power.
Chirac wants the U.N. weapons' inspectors to return to Iraq and operate within a timeframe determined by themselves, not Washington.
Hans Blix, the Swedish diplomat who heads the team of inspectors says he may need up to 18 months before he could report to the Security Council.
Assuming that the inspectors are in Iraq by Christmas, the Blix timetable would take us into the summer of 2004. Even if he reports at that time that the Iraqis have not cooperated with his team, the issue would have to be raised by the Security Council so that a new resolution, authorizing the use of force, is discussed.
By then we would be right in the middle of the American presidential election.
French official sources believe that if there is no Iraq war within the next 10-16 weeks there will be none for another two years, at least.
If President George W Bush is reelected in 2004 he may well have less of an incentive to act against Saddam Hussein. If, on the other hand, he loses to a Democrat candidate, the new U.S. president might not want to adopt one of the Republicans' most controversial policies immediately.
All but one of the likely Democratic presidential candidates have already said they are opposed to war without the full backing of the Security Council.
The second phase of Chirac's strategy consists of efforts inside Iraq to persuade Saddam to change certain aspects of his domestic and foreign policies.
"The Americans want regime change in Baghdad," says a senior French source. "But should this mean a change of personnel only? What if we could bring about significant policy changes without installing a totally new leadership that might or might not be acceptable to the Iraqi people?"
The source adds: "Chirac is convinced that he can persuade Saddam to talk the right talk and walk the right walk."
Chirac is the only Western leader to have a personal knowledge of the Iraqi president.
The two first met in 1975, when Chirac was prime minister for the first time, and almost instantly warmed up to one another.
Chirac became the first French leader to make an official visit to Baghdad that year, and to deepen his ties with Saddam who was vice president and "strongman" at the time.
Saddam showed his appreciation by approving a deal under which Iraq committed to granting French oil companies a number of privileges plus a 23 percent share of Iraqi oil.
Chirac repaid the favor by approving the construction of Iraq's first nuclear-power center, Tammuz, near Baghdad. The project, which subsequently emerged as the core of Iraq's efforts to develop nuclear weapons, was destroyed in an Israeli air raid in September 1980.
In 1976 Saddam paid an official visit to France, his first and last to any Western country, and was received by Chirac as a head of state.
It was not until 1991 that Chirac broke contacts with Saddam as a result of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
The friendship forged between the two men proved profitable for both sides. France sold an estimated $20 billion worth of weapons, including Mirage fighters, to Iraq, and emerged as Iraq's biggest trading partner, in a wide-range of civilian goods and services, after Russia. In exchange, Iraq focused on France as its largest oil market in Europe.
During five of his seven-year first term as president, Chirac was unable to pursue an Iraq policy of his own because he had to contend with a Socialist-Communist cabinet headed by his then political rival Lionel Jospin.
Since last April,
however, Chirac, with his supporters in control of both the parliament
and the cabinet, has assumed personal charge of the Iraqi issue by setting
up a special "policy cell" within the Elysee Palace.
The emissary is Pierre Delval, described by many as a brilliant young diplomat.
He first went to Baghdad using as cover the post of director of the French state-owned National Printing Company, but has since been seconded to the Quai d'Orsay, the French foreign office.
The Delval mission is designed in a way as to allow him to spend ten days in Iraq each month, thus giving Paris a direct diplomatic presence in the absence of an ambassador.
According to sources Iraqi response to Delval has been "more than encouraging."
This was symbolized by the fact that Saddam Hussein invited the French diplomat to attend a four-hour session of the Iraqi government last month when the latest threats from Washington were debated.
Delval's main Iraqi contact man is Tareq Aziz, the veteran Baathist leader who has been close to the French for years.
In recent months, however, Delval has also forged links with Qussai, Saddam Hussein's younger son. The two have met on at least six occasions and held "very broad discussions on all aspects of policy."
French sources believe that Qussai, unlike his elder brother Uday whom they describe as "unpredictable," could play a central role in a period of transition.
One idea is for Qussai to be appointed prime minister, a post now held by Saddam himself, so that he can form a cabinet of new generation and bring in new faces, mostly technocrats.
Another French idea is that the Baath party, now controlled by Uday, should be revived under a new leadership.
Delval has met several Baath leaders to evoke the possibility of a congress in which the Iraqi ruling party could "carry out major reforms of policy and personnel."
The French believe that the Baath remains a real political force in Iraq and should not be dismissed out of hand.
Paris sources claim that Saddam's decision to announce a general amnesty, including the release of all political prisoners, is a response to French suggestions.
Another French suggestion is that Saddam should announce an amnesty, perhaps next April, for Iraqis in exile, inviting them all to return home and help rebuild the country.
Another part of the plan is to hold fresh parliamentary elections, perhaps next autumn, so that a more credible legislature could be formed. The French want the new parliament to include members from the two principal Kurdish parties plus the Iraqi Communist party, and independents, especially women.
Unlike Washington that presents Iraq's leadership as a coterie of war criminals, Paris insists that the Iraqi ruling elite includes many "valuable individuals".
One senior French official even told us that Paris believed that Iraq had "potentially the most effective leadership group in the whole of the Arab world."
Apart from Qussai and Tareq Aziz, Iraqi officials who appear to be supporting the French initiative include the National Assembly Speaker Saadoun Hammadi, diplomatic advisor Nizar Hamdoun, Commerce Minister Muhamamd Mahdi-Saleh, head of the Central Bank Muhammad al-Hawwash, presidential adviser Abdulrazzaq al-Hashemi, Industry Minister Amer al-Rashid, and Foreign Minister Naji al-Sabri.
To these are added a number of technocrats, senior civil servants, university teachers, and private businessmen with links to France.
"We can change Iraq without war," says a French source. "All we need is time to show that our scenario works better than that of Washington."
What France is proposing in Iraq is already seen in Paris as "the Chirac Doctrine" which is aimed at persuading "trouble-making regimes" to accept peaceful change.
The question is: Will Washington stand back and watch while the Chirac doctrine is pout to its first major test?
Amir Taheri is editor of the French quarterly Politique Internationale and is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.