Has France shot itself in the foot by trying to prevent the toppling of Saddam Hussein?
The question is keeping French foreign policy circles buzzing as the year draws to the close.
Even a month ago, few would have dared pose the question.
In denial mode, the French elite did not wish to consider the possibility that President Jacques Chirac may have made a mistake by leading the bloc that opposed the liberation of Iraq last March.
Now, however, the search is on for someone to blame for what the daily newspaper Liberation describes as "the disarray of French foreign policy."
There are several reasons for this.
The French have seen Saddam Hussein's capture on television and found him not worthy of the efforts that their government deployed to prolong his rule. They have also seen the Iranian mullahs agreeing to curtail their nuclear programme under the threat of US military action. And just this week they saw Muammar al-Kaddhafi, possibly the most egocentric windbag among despots, crawl into a humiliating surrender to the " Anglo-Saxons".
The fact that France was not even informed of the Kaddhafi deal is seen in Paris as particularly painful.
The episode provoked some cacophony at the top of the French state.
On Monday, the Defence Minister , Mrs. Michelle Alliot-Marie, claimed that Paris had been informed of the deal with Libya. Moments later, Dominique de Villepin, the Foreign Minister, denied any knowledge. Chirac was forced to intervene through his Elysee spokeswoman who tried to pretend that the French knew what was afoot but not directly from the US and Britain.
Some French commentators believe that the Bush administration is determined to isolate France and "teach her a lesson" as punishment for the French campaign in favour of Saddam.
" Vengeance is a hamburger that is eaten cold," writes Georges Dupuy in Liberation. "The fingerprint of the United States could be detected in the setbacks suffered by France's diplomacy."
A similar analysis is made by some academics and politicians.
"France over did it," says Dominique Moisi, a foreign policy researcher close to the Chirac administration. "Our opposition to the war was principled. But the way we expressed it was excessive. The Americans might have accepted such behaviour from Russia, but not from France which was regarded as an ally and friend."
Moisi describes as "needlessly provocative" the campaign that Villepin conducted last spring to persuade Security Council members to vote against the US-backed draft resolution on Iraq, He says that the Chirac administration did not understand the impact of the 9/11 tragedy on America's view of the world.
Pierre Lellouche, a member of parliament, claims that the US has "a deliberate strategy to isolate France, echoing what happened during the Iraqi crisis."
There is no doubt that France has suffered a number of diplomatic setbacks in the past year or so. But not all were linked to the Iraq issue or, as many French believe, the result of score-settling by Washington.
Soon after winning his second term as president last year, Chirac quarrelled with British Prime Minister Tony Blair over a range of European issues. The two were not on speaking term for almost six months.
Chirac then had a row with Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi after a French minister described the Italian leader as a "dangerous populist".
In the course of the past year Chirac has also quarrelled with Spain's Prime Minister Jose-Maria Aznar, both about Iraq and on a range of European issues. Last spring Chirac invited the leaders of central and eastern European nations to "shut up" after they published an op-ed in support of US policy on Iraq.
In September France decided to ignore the European Stability Pact, the cornerstone of the euro, to accommodate the biggest budget deficit of any European Union member. And last month, Chirac together with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, provoked a diplomatic fight with Poland and Spain, thus preventing the adoption of the much-advertised European Union Constitution.
France's policy in the Middle East and Africa is also in a mess.
France's passionate campaign to keep Saddam in power won no plaudits from the Arabs.
Many Arab leaders regard France as a maverick power that could get them involved in an unnecessary, and ultimately self-defeating, conflict with the United States.
"I cannot imagine what Chirac was thinking," says a senior Saudi official on condition of anonymity. "How could he expect us to join him in preventing the Americans from solving our biggest problem which was the presence of Saddam Hussein in power in Baghdad?"
Another senior Arab diplomat, from Egypt, echoes the sentiment.
"The French did not understand that the Arabs desired the end of Saddam, although they had to pretend that this was not the case," he says.
In Africa, the recent Libyan accord with Britain and the US deals a severe blow to French prestige. Libya is the most active member of the African Union and its exclusion of France, also from talks on compensation for victims of Libyan terrorism, sets an example for other African nations.
To be fair, France is trying to repair some of the damage it has done to itself, and its allies, by trying to prolong Saddam's rule.
This month, Chirac unrolled the red carpet for a delegation from the Iraqi Governing Council which had been described by Villepin as "an American tool" a few weeks earlier.
France has also agreed to write-off part of the Iraqi debt and to side with the US and Britain in convening the Paris Club of creditor nations to give new Iraq a helping hand.
And, yet, it is unlikely that France can restore its credibility without a reform of the way its foreign policy is made.
Villepin may end up as the scapegoat .
Liberation complains about what it sees as Villepin's decision to "practice the art of eating humble pie" by praising the Anglo-American success in Libya.
"What happened to Villepin's flamboyance?" the paper demands. "How far have we come from the famous French Arab and African policies!"
But to blame all on Villepin, a rather excitable amateur poet, is unfair. In France, foreign policy is the exclusive domain of the president, with the foreign minister acting as his secretary.
The system was created by General De Gaulle, a larger than life figure, in 1958, and a time that France, involved in the Algerian war and under attack from the Soviet bloc and its French Communist allies in the context of the Cold War, needed a single foreign policy voice.
Since then the world has changed and France with it.
It is not normal that France should be the only major democracy in which the prime minister and his Cabinet and the parliament, not to mention he political parties and the media, have virtually no say in shaping foreign policy.
The cliché about foreign policy being " the domain of the president" is an insult to democracy.
Had France had the debates over Iraq that other democracies, notably the United States and Britain, organised at all levels, especially in their respective legislatures, it is more than possible that Chirac would not have been able to impose a pro-Saddam strategy that was clearly doomed to failure.
France might have ended up opposing the war, all the same, as did Germany. But it would not have become involved in an active campaign against its allies and in favour of an Arab despot.
France must certainly review its foreign policy. But what it needs even more urgently is a reform of its institutions to end the monarchic aspects of the Fifth Republic.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of 10 books on the Middle East and Islam. He's reachable through www.benadorassociates.com .