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First 'Freedom Fries,' Now Oil-for-Food Lies: Give France a Break

First 'Freedom Fries,' Now Oil-for-Food Lies: Give France a Break

Op ed of French ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte in the Los Angeles Times. Source: Embassy of France in the United States - April 7, 2004.

A year ago, when the question of military intervention to disarm Iraq was raised, my country strongly opposed such a step, convinced that Iraq was not an imminent threat to world peace and had no link to Al Qaeda, and that the consequences of a war needed to be seriously weighed.

At that time, France's position, which was shared by many countries and a number of Americans, was widely disparaged. Although there were many signs of friendship extended to me from individual Americans, for which I am very grateful, there were also many false accusations spread in public to discredit France.

Since then, the diplomatic hurricane has abated. Today, we all understand the importance of what unites us, from our common fight against terrorism to our presence side by side in regional conflicts in Afghanistan, Haiti, Kosovo and elsewhere.

Consequently, I have been deeply surprised in the last few days to see a new campaign of unfounded accusations against my country flourish again in the media. These allegations, being spread by a handful of influential, conservative TV and newspaper journalists in the U.S., have arisen in connection with a recent inquiry into the "oil for food" program that was run by the United Nations in Iraq during the final years of Saddam Hussein's government.

These allegations suggest that the government of France condoned kickbacks — bribes, in effect — from French companies to the Iraqi regime in return for further contracts. They say Paris turned a blind eye to these activities. Let me be absolutely clear. These aspersions are completely false and can only have been an effort to discredit France, a longtime friend and ally of the U.S.

As the former French ambassador to the U.N., let me explain how the oil-for-food program worked. Created in 1996, it was intended to provide Iraqis with essential goods to alleviate the humanitarian effect of the international sanctions that remained in place. The program authorized Iraq to export agreed-on quantities of oil, and allowed money from the sales to be used for food and other necessities. The program was managed by the U.N. and monitored by Security Council members.

Between 1996 and the end of the program in 2003, every contract for every humanitarian purchase had to be unanimously approved by the 15 members of the Security Council, including France, Britain and the U.S. The complete contracts were only circulated to the U.S. and Britain, which had expressly asked to see them and would have been in the best position to have known if anything improper was going on. Though a number of contracts were put on hold by the American and British delegations on security-related grounds, no contract was ever held up because malfeasance, such as illegal kickbacks, had been detected.

Was there corruption and bribery inside the program? Frankly, I don't know. Iraq was not a market economy; it was under sanctions at the time. Customs experts had little choice but to assume that the prices set by outside companies were "reasonable and acceptable," a criterion of acceptance used by the U.N. secretariat, and they had no way of checking whether some contracts were overpriced.

That is why France fully supports the independent inquiry set up by the U.N. The truth must come out. Was France a major beneficiary of oil-for-food contracts, as several conservative columnists have claimed recently? Definitely not. From the beginning of the program to its end, French contracts accounted for 8% of the total. We were Iraq's eighth-largest supplier. In addition, throughout the program a sizable proportion of the contracts dubbed "French" were in fact contracts from foreign companies using their

French branches, subsidiaries and agents. Among them were U.S. firms providing spare parts for the oil industry (including several subsidiaries of Halliburton). They submitted contracts through French subsidiaries for more than $200 million. It is also suggested that the money from the oil-for-food contracts passed exclusively through a French bank, BNP Paribas. Wrong again: 41% of the money passed through J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, which, like BNP, was contracted by the U.N. with the approval of Security Council members.

This leaves us with one remaining accusation: that the French positions on the oil-for-food program and Iraq in general were driven by the lure of oil. Yet France was never a major destination for Iraqi oil during the program. In 2001, 8% of Iraqi oil was imported by France, compared with 44.5% imported by the U.S., which was the No. 1 importer all along.

At a time when the U.N. is considering a return to Iraq, and we all agree on the need for close international cooperation to help a sovereign, stable Iraq emerge, I don't understand this campaign. Or the hidden agenda behind it.

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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).