- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

While President Bush will use this week’s European trip to talk to foreign leaders about the war on terrorism, AIDS, world poverty and genetically modified crops, many eyes will be searching for signs of a snub when he meets French President Jacques Chirac.

Already the White House has announced Mr. Bush will depart from Evian, France — site of this year’s annual Group of Eight summit, hosted by the outspoken opponent of the U.S.-led war in Iraq — a day early to fly to the Middle East for meetings with Arab leaders and the prime ministers of Israel and the Palestinians.

In sublime “diplospeak,” the White House yesterday dismissed notions that the early departure from the meeting of the world’s largest industrial democracies and Russia could be viewed as a snub.

“The French were notified yesterday about the duration at which the president will be there,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. “Obviously, he has a lot of priorities on this trip, and the Middle East is clearly one of them.”

The Sunday meeting between the U.S. and French presidents, which the White House said yesterday will include substantive talks, should bring to an end the perception that the Bush administration is seeking to punish France for its opposition to the war.

“I think it’s a meeting that the president is looking forward to,” Mr. Fleischer said. “The fact of the matter is our relationship has undergone some strain, but there is much important business for the United States and France to attend to. And I think you’ll see two leaders talk to each other in the spirit of alliance.”

After Mr. Chirac and French leaders in February campaigned against a U.S.-sponsored resolution in the United Nations authorizing the use of force in Iraq, French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte took the unusual step of sending the White House a letter claiming to be the victim of an “organized campaign of disinformation” from within the Bush administration.

The letter accused the administration of planting false stories in the news media about French complicity with the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, including a report in The Washington Times that Syria issued French passports to high-level Iraqis so they could flee.

The White House denied the accusation, but an administration official vented over the French complaints.

“It would be nice if the French foreign ministry would stop spreading lies about America, saying the Iraq war was about blood for oil and control of the Middle East,” the official told the Daily Telegraph of London.

Throughout the rift, France was the butt of jokes on late-night television, and Air Force One even served “freedom toast” on a presidential trip, renaming French toast. The New York Times reported that Mr. Bush was so irked at the French that he would stay across the Swiss border in Geneva during the summit, a story quickly shot down by the White House.

For his part, Mr. Bush will likely look past Mr. Chirac at the G-8 summit when he arrives Sunday. The president will focus on trying to persuade European leaders to increase funding for fighting AIDS, famine and poverty in Africa and urge them to stop thwarting efforts to feed starving Africans by blocking the use of genetically modified crops.

“The president will emphasize the importance of the United States and Europe working together, as well as Japan and all members of the G-8 working together to improve the lives of people around the world … through economic development, through trade, through development aid to the developing regions of the world,” Mr. Fleischer said.

Mr. Bush will leave Evian on Monday instead of Tuesday, forcing him to miss a summit dinner and the reading of the group’s final communique.

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