France's Change Of Heart On War?

France, French Flag, Iraq, Saddam Hussein, U.S.
Thousands of miles from the jubilant Iraqis dancing in the streets of Baghdad, the French have had what appears to be a change of heart.

After months of fighting tooth-and-nail against the U.S.-led war, the mood in France is shifting to one of cautious support. Not necessarily support for the U.S. government or the war but support for the fall of Saddam Hussein and subtle applause for the army that felled him.

French leaders Thursday said they "rejoiced"' in the collapse of Saddam's regime, while newspapers praised the United States for its quick work in Baghdad.

Absent was the criticism that prevailed during France's bitter arguments with the United States and Britain ahead of the war.

"The Americans have won the war in only three weeks," "Le Figaro" newspaper wrote in an editorial. "It is a victory for George Bush."

Editorials retained a healthy dose of skepticism, questioning the whereabouts of Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction and reminding readers that the great challenge of postwar reconstruction remained ahead.

But political analysts, noting the subtle shift in the media's tone, said people now wondered whether France was right to oppose the war so staunchly.

"The French are discovering the truth that the coalition was efficient," said Francois Gere, director of the Paris-based Diplomatic and Defense Institute.

Before the fighting, newspapers and politicians said "the United States and Britain would be considered as invaders and the people of Iraq would oppose them," he said.

"Instead we see pictures of Iraqi people celebrating not only the arrival of British and U.S. forces but celebrating the end of a regime."

His words were echoed by Philippe Moreau Defarges of the French Institute of International Relations.

"We're seeing a subtle shift," Defarges said. "We are starting to hear a more dissonant voice in France. The U.S. victory has made the debate more complex."

In the war's first two weeks, French media went heavy with coverage of Iraqi civilian casualties and scenes of suffering. The weekly news magazine "Le Point" featured an American soldier on its cover under the headline, "The Tragedy." "Le Figaro" magazine showed an American soldier trudging through the mud under the question: "Iraq: A New Vietnam?"

On Thursday, media criticism was aimed squarely at the fallen Iraqi leader. Several newspapers and TV news magazines ran lengthy features on the cruelty of Saddam's regime. "Le Monde" newspaper ran a two-page spread titled: "The Dictator Who Terrorized Iraq."

At Paris bus-stops and cafes, people enthusiastically welcomed Saddam's ouster, but were mixed about the U.S. role.

"For a long time, the Iraqi people needed to revolt against Saddam Hussein, but couldn't do it alone,'' said Jacques Bidot, waiting for a bus near the Champs-Elysees. He dismissed the TV images of exuberant Iraqis as "a lot of propaganda."

France's government tempered its delight over Saddam's end with renewed calls for the United Nations to have a "central role" in postwar Iraq.

"France, like all democracies, rejoices," said President Jacques Chirac's office in a statement.

"A somber page is turning," Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin added.

France's demands that the U.N. be at the center of rebuilding Iraq appear at odds with statements from the United States suggesting that the world body's role will be limited to supervising humanitarian aid, endorsing a post-conflict administration and making suggestions about the makeup of Iraq's interim authority.

While the French government stopped short of saying so, leading politicians insisted Thursday that France was right to have opposed the war.

"Two weeks ago, everyone was taking their hats off to France," said Alain Juppe, a former prime minister. "Today they're starting to say we were wrong." He added: "We have nothing to regret."