Paris If he is tempted to say "I told you so" about Iraq, President Jacques Chirac stifles the urge completely during an hourlong conversation at the Elysee Palace. He insists on looking ahead, not back.
This allows him to bypass lingering differences with the Bush administration on the Middle East and to suggest instead that it is time to begin serious work on repairing French-American relations.
The quarrels of a year ago, when Chirac led foreign opposition to the impending war in Iraq and called for a more "multipolar" world, are not forgotten here any more than they are in Washington. But the chance to shrink the French-American disputes back to manageable proportions feels real, especially when Chirac describes specific steps that can -- in fact, must, he says -- be taken.
France's recurring criticisms of American hegemony, the role of the dollar, Hollywood's taste and its power, and other topics have never been much welcome in Washington. But direct expressions of disagreement from Paris have often been useful when the dialogue is open enough, and friendly enough, to permit them to be considered seriously.
This has not been the case recently. Getting back to that modest state of relations is a worthwhile goal, even as differences persist.
So it may be progress when Chirac begins with what I count as a small semantic concession. (Words do still matter in France.) "Multipolar," he says, is not a code word for challenging and reducing American power, as some critics charge. It is instead a way of describing a view of the world "that should reinforce the trans-Atlantic relationship."
"Inevitably in this new century we will see a number of important powers assert themselves," Chirac notes. "China, India, Europe, South America are examples. This leads to what I call a 'multipolar world.' Given human nature, the development of a number of big powers -- that is, of strong multiple poles -- could expand the risk of conflict. Those dangers are already quite large due to the power of modern weapons.
"So it is important in light of this for the countries of Europe and America, which share common roots and values, and globally have the same interests, to strengthen their union, precisely to work together to avoid such risks," he says, speaking in French.
"Ce n'est pas du wishful," he adds, speaking the final word in English for emphasis as he denies that what he is advocating is wishful thinking. "This is a positive vision of the world as it is and as it soon will be. Compared to that, differences on Iraq should take on less importance."
A chance to begin putting that sentiment into practice may come as early as Friday when Chirac's foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, meets with Secretary of State Colin Powell over breakfast in New York. Relations between the two key officials have been particularly strained since de Villepin openly challenged Powell over Iraq last winter at the United Nations and then spearheaded France's opposition to the war.
The diplomatic arguments have not prevented French and American anti-terrorist officials from establishing cooperation that both sides describe as effective. Nor has it stopped 150 French special operations troops from fighting under American command in Afghanistan.
Under Chirac, France has in fact reshaped its relationship with NATO to take into account the changing nature of global insecurity. He underlines this by telling me:
"You have to be realistic in a changing world. We have updated our vision, which once held that NATO had geographic limits. The idea of a regional NATO no longer exists, as the alliance's involvement in Afghanistan demonstrates. And we are not against a role in Iraq for NATO if it comes to that."
Moreover, Washington and Paris have in the last few days come to agreement on a new command structure for NATO's Rapid Reaction Force, French officials report. The United States had initially resisted assigning two key slots to French generals but relented last week rather than prolong a debilitating dispute that would have kept French troops out of the new force.
The White House is still considering an invitation from Chirac to President Bush to join the 60th anniversary of the allied D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6. Chirac is also willing to host Bush at a dinner and private conversations in Paris on the night before the formal ceremonies.
This is a conversation worth having despite -- or perhaps precisely because of -- the big differences that loom unresolved between these two leaders and their countries. Paris is not turning, but it is ready to talk.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group