Chirac, Bush to endure working dinner together

20th February 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Feb 21 (AFP) - Monday's dinner date in Brussels will be a tough assignment for presidents George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac, two antagonists who know they must suppress a deep mutual disdain in the interest of loftier political purpose.

PARIS, Feb 21 (AFP) - Monday's dinner date in Brussels will be a tough assignment for presidents George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac, two antagonists who know they must suppress a deep mutual disdain in the interest of loftier political purpose.

Since Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles de Gaulle, relations between French and American leaders have never been simple, but the instinctive antipathy that divides the current pair transcends the routine transatlantic suspicion of the last half century.

In the symbolic high point of Bush's first trip to Europe since his reelection in November, both men will do their best to put behind them the past two years of hostility and focus on new horizons - but the task will not be easy.

"It is an extremely difficult relationship," said Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Centre on the United States in Paris. "Chirac thinks Bush is superficial. Bush thinks Chirac is unprincipled and too wily for his own good."

The two leaders have seen each other several times since the start of Bush's first term, but on no occasion could the encounter be described as warm.

At a meeting not long after the September 11 attacks on the United States, Bush reportedly produced a list of countries close to France and asked - Are they with us or against us? "It didn't exactly convince Chirac that Bush knows how the world works," Parmentier said.

A low point came at the 2003 Group of Eight (G8) summit in the Alpine resort of Evian when - according to a new book "Chirac against Bush" by two French journalists - Chirac made the spectacular faux pas of offering the American president - a reformed alcoholic - a case of wine and cognac.

More recently Chirac waited nearly a week after Bush's relection to telephone his congratulations - a delay which aides said was caused by the pressure of work. "We didn't believe a word of it - but pretended to," a US diplomat told the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur.

"Chirac thinks of himself as the doyen of the heads of state who count and expects to be treated with a certain deference. Bush doesn't see it quite like that," a senior French diplomat said in the same magazine article.

"For him Chirac is the aging head of a mediocre nation, while he is the young leader of the greatest power on earth. So he is the one who should be deferred to. Together they are like a pair of cocks in a henhouse," he said.

"They are so different in years, in background, in outlook, in everything. It makes for real personal rejection and animosity," said Nicole Bacharan, a researcher of Franco-American origin at the Foundation of Political Sciences in Paris.

"At this dinner they are going to try to work round the problem - and luckily they are helped by circumstances. Both think they've been vindicated by recent events - so both can afford to be less vindictive and personal," she said.

Iraq - the cause of the original breakdown in early 2003 - could now offer a way out, she said: "Bush thinks the elections last month have proved that he was right all along, while Chirac can welcome the return to national sovereignty - something which he has always demanded."

Another shared interest is Lebanon, where both leaders see Damascus as the main suspect in the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

For Chirac - a close friend of Hariri - the murder was a personal blow and could incline him more sympathetically to Bush's warnings on terrorism.

Following Bush's inaugural address in which he said restoring European relations was a priority - and then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's successful charm offensive in Paris and other capitals two weeks ago - the moment has clearly arrived for a return to transatlantic civilities.

"Monday's dinner will be about mood. It won't be very substantial - summits rarely are - but it will be a way of taking the temperature and seeing if they can work together again," said Parmentier.

But beyond the atmospherics, there is little confidence that the fundamentals of the Bush-Chirac relationship will change. There are too many specific points of difference - Iran, China, Kyoto - all reinforced by a yawning gulf in temperament and philosophy.

For both men, it will be a dinner to endure, not enjoy.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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