President Jacques Chirac is under pressure from key supporters who fear that France's opposition to war with Iraq could cripple relations with the United States, wreck the United Nations and leave France isolated.
While not a signal that France is about to change its drive to extend U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq, leaders of Chirac's political party are voicing concern about the repercussions of a showdown with Washington, and what it might cost their country.
Above all a bloc of so-called "Atlanticist" lawmakers from the conservative Union for the Parliamentary Majority, or UMP, are concerned about what will happen if France uses its veto as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to block Washington.
Saying he believes war on Iraq is inevitable, pro-American UMP lawmaker Herve de Charette said Thursday the use of a veto "is a decision with great ramifications, of great gravity."
De Charette, a former foreign minister, noted that France has not used its veto against the United States since the crisis over the Suez Canal in 1956.
"A veto is unimaginable," Claude Goasguen, another senior conservative lawmaker, told daily Le Monde in its Thursday edition. "We are not going to break the United Nations and Europe just to save a tyrant," he said, referring to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"We are not going to shoot them (the Americans) in the back," added Pierre Lellouche, the unofficial leader of the "Atlanticist" block.
The concerns show no sign of pulling back Chirac, who has spearheaded diplomatic opposition to U.S. and British demands for tough action to disarm Iraq. Chirac has demanded more time for U.N. weapons inspectors and said he sees no need for Anglo-American calls for a second U.N. resolution declaring Iraq is not disarming - a likely precursor for military action.
France has not ruled out eventually using military action against Iraq if the inspections show that Iraq has not cooperated.
Accustomed to France taking a different stance on global issues to preserve its claim to be independent, U.S. diplomats initially assumed Paris would, as it has in the past on key issues, eventually fall in to line. But French opposition has increased in recent weeks, splitting NATO and the European Union, with Chirac claiming to speak for European public opinion.
That has left U.S. and British diplomats fearing that France could veto their efforts in the Security Council. Such a French move would probably shatter Franco-American relations, divide the European Union and leave the United Nations powerless if Washington decides to ignore it.
France depends on its U.N. veto and its close Western alliances to buttress its claim that it is a global power. A veto against Washington could endanger France's global position.
While expressing concern about where French policy was leading, top UMP leaders stopped short of openly declaring their opposition to a French veto. The lawmakers have shown support for Chirac's stance that war could be considered as a last resort.
"We have taken into account the concern about not uselessly breaking relations with the United States," Jacques Barrot, the UMP head of parliament's foreign affairs commission, told Le Monde.
The government is keeping its cards close to its chest, saying that discussion on the veto is so far unnecessary because the United States lacks the nine Security Council votes needed to pass the resolution. Under French law, only the president can authorize a veto.
"The political establishment is worried," said Philippe Moreau Defarges, of the French Institute of International Relations.
But Chirac could decide to listen to public opinion -- which favors the use of a veto if evidence against Saddam is deemed insufficient to justify a war -- rather than his lawmakers.
"The parliamentarians are important, but they do not necessarily reflect public opinion," Moreau Defarges said.
The U.S. ambassador in Paris, Howard H. Leach, in an editorial published in Le Monde dated Friday, hinted that continued French opposition to the United States on Iraq would indeed have serious consequences.
"In the Iraqi crisis, we have reached an important moment when a decision has to be taken," he said. "And France's position could have repercussions for a longtime to come."