JIM LEHRER: Mr. Ambassador, welcome. Your President Chirac called President Bush today and said Iraq can be disarmed without using force, is that correct?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Yes, it is correct. First, it was an excellent conversation. Number one, there is a real friendship between the two presidents and for us it's very important. Second, we continue to think that there is a possibility to prevent the war. Of course, Saddam Hussein must cooperate and must cooperate actively. But we think that there is room for reinforced inspections, and what we mean is that we could decide to double or triple the number of inspectors of original sites to have more efficiency for the inspectors. We could deploy the U2 plane and also a Mirage plane to have surveillance of the air space and so on and so forth.
JIM LEHRER: As you know, the chief weapons inspectors for the U.N. are going to Baghdad this weekend and they say, Mr. Blix in particular, has said if he does not detect a dramatic change in the attitude of Iraq, he's going to come back and report to the Security Council a week from today, give a strongly negative report, and then he implies very strongly that then it'll be up to the Security Council to decide whether or not to take action against Iraq. Do you see the scenario working out the same way?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Let me say first that we have passed the same message directly and indirectly to Baghdad because Baghdad must cooperate fully, actively. That is a French demand, together with the inspectors. Now, I don't want to anticipate the report which will come out of the mission of the two inspectors, Blix and El Baradei -- we'll see -- but we hope that we'll get better news than in the past.
JIM LEHRER: Does France have some special information that would seem to indicate that Saddam Hussein is going to change his tactics suddenly in this next week?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: No. We have no information. What we have seen yesterday, today, is that for the first time they were wanting to interview without the presence of officials.
JIM LEHRER: Scientists, interview of scientists, Iraqi scientists?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Yes. And that is a little sign but we expect much more.
JIM LEHRER: Much more. And do you have any reason to believe it's going to happen?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: We hope so, and we are determined to do whatever possible, because this is the only way, the only way to prevent a war.
JIM LEHRER: If there is not this cooperation and if the word, of course, as you know, is that the United States, particularly Britain, is drafting a resolution that would follow a negative report from Mr. Blix and Mr. El Baradei calling for, authorizing military action, would France not support that?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: We have said time and again that, first, we don't exclude the use of force, but it is for us the last option, the last option, and we consider that there is still room for good inspections, reinforced inspections, and we have proposed a number of ideas to do a better job with the inspectors. And let me add one comment on the virtue of inspections. What is at stake is not only Iraq. What is at stake is the very idea of inspections throughout the world through the U.N. system. Take an example, Korea, North Korea. If we decide that the inspections don't work, what is left as an option for North Korea? Bomb.
JIM LEHRER: What do you say to the United States, who takes the position, wait a minute, this isn't about inspections, this isn't about the validity of U.N. inspections, this is about the validity of the U.N. willing to enforce its own orders against a state such as Iraq, which has ignored these orders from the U.N. Security Council for 12 years; it isn't about having more inspectors running around Iraq. You just disagree with that?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: No, we don't disagree. We agree with our American friends; Iraq must disarm and must do more, and that is a message that we stress time and again with Baghdad, but we have to recognize also that if you compare with the 90's, the UNSCOM period, it's much better, so we are in a kind of gray zone. There is passive cooperation. When you knock at the door, they open the door, we want more.
JIM LEHRER: Le Monde, one of your most prominent newspapers in France, reported today that France has already determined that if there is a new resolution authorizing force that France will veto it, is that true?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: No, we don't say that, for one good reason. First, we must get the report of the inspectors, and it's only on the basis of that report, which will come on the 14 of February that will assess the situation, together with our partners in the Security Council, and the situation as of today, it's that there is a broad majority in the Security Council in favor of more time given to the inspectors.
JIM LEHRER: How much more time?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: That's a good question, and we think that we should, together with the inspectors, the members of the council, discuss the possibility to establish a kind of list of the tasks we may need to be achieved by the inspectors and then try to establish a kind of time frame to implement the inspections and really progress toward disarmament. Our common goal with the U.S., with everybody, is disarmament of Iraq.
JIM LEHRER: But it's a fair reading, is it not, to say that the French position right now is that you do not see any immediate use of force?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Exactly. That is our position.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, in the next few weeks -- in your case you're talking months maybe, many months.
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: You are going a bit too far here for one good reason. Much will depend on the report of the inspectors on the 14 of February. If they come back with some progress, we'll say, hey, let's continue; let's reinforce the inspections; let's have more inspectors, more facilities for the inspections and so on -- If on the contrary they were to come back with a very negative report, then a new situation would appear.
JIM LEHRER: And that, it's possible then that France would, in fact, participate -- not participate in -- but France would support the use of military force.
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Yes. We have always said that we don't exclude the use of force but it is for us the very, very last option, and we are not yet at that stage. By far, it seems to us that there is room for more inspections, better inspections and results.
JIM LEHRER: What is your reading, Mr. Ambassador, about what this give and take or to-ing and fro-ing between the United States and France has done to the basic relationship between France and the United States?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: I'm very glad you asked me the question because as an ambassador of France to the U.S. I'm in distress. When I look at the papers on both sides of the Atlantic, I wonder if the war is not between the United States and France, and really our friendship is a treasure that we must protect. We worked side by side with you during the days of your independence. You saved us two times during the two world wars and we will never forget that, and this treasure of our friendship must be defended, protected, preserved.
JIM LEHRER: So what's going on?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Well, our two presidents maintain a very positive, very good dialogue, as I said, there is friendship between them. They work well; they disagree from time to time. Most of the time they agree on a number of important issues, and our two governments work well together, and if we disagree, it's not about the nature of the regime in Baghdad. We, as you do, consider that Saddam Hussein is a bloody dictator, a disaster for his own country. We don't disagree also on the goal: It's disarmament of Iraq. So we disagree on one issue, one issue only, what is the timing to decide to move from the inspections to the use of force.
JIM LEHRER: Does France believe that the possession of weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein and Iraq is a menace to the world?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: On this we have not only in France but probably in Europe -- a more nuanced perspective. First, the main threat is al-Qaida because we have evidence -- by al-Qaida -- because we have the bunkers a few months ago really destroyed off the coast of Yemen, because last week or ten days ago we arrested in France a network of al-Qaida from Algerian origin, so for us the main threat is al-Qaida; that's the number one priority. And for us and for some in Europe in a way Saddam Hussein is in his box with the inspectors in the box and we see Iraq not as an immediate, urgent threat.
JIM LEHRER: So there's time to deal with him?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Yes, that's our perception.
JIM LEHRER: Is the attitude of the French government a reflection of public opinion in France, or is it the other way around? In other words, is the French government driving public opinion on this issue?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: No, they are together.
JIM LEHRER: They are together.
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: They are together. As you know, not only in France but elsewhere in Italy, in Russia, in Spain, elsewhere in Europe, you have 80 percent of the population against the war, and it's amazing to see the difference of perception between the United States and Europe as a whole, and I explain that with the reasons I just gave you.
First, the perception of the threat is al-Qaida, number one, and only number two and number three are behind -- North Korea, you have Iraq, and for us also the consequences of the war with Iraq would be I would say a real anxiety for Europeans. First Iraq is a divided country, very fragile, with a tradition of violence. So to maintain peace and to promote democracy in Iraq will be a huge task and it will take years. Second, the Middle East as a while is in a situation of stalemate, frustration, bitterness, and third, all this would trigger more recruitment for al-Qaida.
JIM LEHRER: So there are reasons to avoid war that you think outweigh the reasons to go to war?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Not completely. We say it is the last resort, so let's do whatever possible to disarm peacefully Iraq, and if we fail, if the inspectors reach a dead end, then we'll decide together in the Security Council.
JIM LEHRER: Based on your experience, you're a professional diplomat, you've just come from being France's ambassador to the United Nations; you've followed this situation very, very closely. Where do you think this is going to end? Do you have a feeling that this can, in fact, end peacefully, or do you have a feeling war is almost inevitable?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: When you read the American press, you have the feeling that war is nearly inevitable. My hope -- our hope in France is that through diplomacy we will reach a consensus in the Security Council that the weight on this unanimous position in the Security Council will convince Saddam Hussein that he has to cooperate fully, more actively, and at last understand the message of the international community as a whole.
JIM LEHRER: That's a hope.
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: That's a hope.
JIM LEHRER: Not a prediction?
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: No, certainly not.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Ambassador, thank you.
JEAN-DAVID LEVITTE: Thank you very much.