- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2003

PARIS, April 16 (UPI) — French politicians offered a positive spin Wednesday to the first direct contact in two months between President Jacques Chirac and U.S. President George W. Bush to break the mounting diplomatic ice.

"I'm very happy this exchange took place with the president-friend of an allied power," said Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, spokesman for Chirac's conservative UMP party. "I think there were differences, some corresponding to reality, others to interpretation. And it's important to put things on the table."

"It's always good for diplomacy to function, particularly between France and the United States," said a Socialist Party spokesman, who would not comment specifically on the conversation between the two leaders.

The telephone conversation — the first direct contact between Chirac and Bush since Feb. 7 — was described as "positive" by a spokeswoman for the Elysee Presidential palace, but only "professional" by the White House.

During a Wednesday news briefing in Paris, French Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Francois Rivasseau declined to comment on the differing reactions, saying only he was not a professional interpreter.

Paris, Berlin and Moscow have repeatedly condemned the U.S.-led war on Baghdad, and plans to relegate the United Nations to a secondary role during Iraq's reconstruction. But France has borne the brunt of U.S. ire, marked by a deluge of criticism in the media and on Capitol Hill, and informal campaigns to boycott French products.

Bordeaux wine growers this week said they were just beginning to feel the pinch of a drop in American imports, and a scattering of other groups have also complained of a drop in U.S. business.

Indeed, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned last week that France would "pay" for defying Washington — a remark that was widely reported by French media. And Thursday, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice is supposed to meet with senior officials to figure out exactly how, Radio France International reported Wednesday.

Still, as RFI and other experts note, sanctioning France may not be easy. An official boycott violates World Trade Organization rules, and many French companies are part of European conglomerates. Moreover, U.S. businesses are heavily invested in France, making direct sanctions all the harder.

Separately, the French Foreign Ministry described as "unfounded" Wednesday a Newsweek report of two apparently recent French missiles found in Baghdad.

Newsweek cited a U.S. intelligence officer in Iraq saying American forces had found what appeared to be a Roland-2 missile made in 2002, along with the charred remains of a newer Roland-3 launcher. Soldiers have also found 51 Roland-2 missiles at Baghdad's international airport made by French and German arms manufacturers, Newsweek reported.

While France like many other nations had exported missiles to Iraq during the 1970s and 1980s, those shipments were suspended as of the summer of 1990, said Rivasseau, the Foreign Ministry spokesman.

That included shipments of Roland-1 and Roland-2 missiles, he said. Construction of the two missiles ended in 1988 and 1993, respectively, he said. Rivasseau also denied Roland-3 missiles had been exported to Baghdad, and said Roland-2 and -3 appeared almost identical.

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