US-France 'Toast-Flap': Whodunit?

Did the French minister purposely miss a toast for the US secretary of state, or was it just bad timing? Diplomats chew it over.

Oscar Wilde said it, but Napoleon said it first: "Never be unintentionally impolite." It's a good aphorism for a strange footnote in US-French diplomatic relations.

It started with a press report that French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette had snubbed his American counterpart, Warren Christopher, at NATO headquarters last week when he deliberately walked out of a luncheon toast in honor of the outgoing US secretary of state.

"An incredible display of petulant behavior," said an unnamed senior US official. "Inexcusably impolite," said a US senator in a formal protest to the French Embassy in Washington.

The story got the attention of French diplomats, who quickly assembled evidence to deny the charges. Exhibit A: a statement from NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana that there had been no toast to Mr. Christopher during the Dec. 10 lunch and, moreover, Mr. de Charette did not leave the room during the event.

Press reports of a French snub were "false and malicious," said Jacques Rummelhardt, a French foreign ministry spokesman. "The aim of those who peddled this information is clearly to harm Franco-American relations." In private, French diplomats said they doubted that the Americans had planted the story.

Day 2 of "toast-flap" produced a new round of charges and countercharges. US State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns praised The Washington Post story that first surfaced the snub. It was accurate in all but one respect: the snub occurred later in the day, he said, in a Dec. 12 briefing.

Now there could be no doubt, French officials concluded: The Americans were responsible for this story. Paris countered with Exhibit B: transcripts and a tape of a US press briefing that credited the French foreign minister with "a nice statement" in tribute to Secretary Christopher the day of the alleged snub. The "nice statement" remark had been edited out of the official US transcript, they noted.

"We haven't seen tactics like this since the days of the cold war with Stalin," said a high-ranking French official.

The reference to a "nice statement" from the French foreign minister was edited out of official transcripts because it was later found to be a mistake; the statement had never been made, explained US officials. French diplomats could not supply their own text of their minister's kind words or confirm that they had occurred.

Clearing the air

The alleged snub is a now a week old, and diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic now say they want to get the event behind them. But in the interest of those US senators and the reading public who followed this drama, a few points for the record:

*There was a tribute to the US secretary of state at the end of the NATO ministerial meeting last Tuesday, and the French foreign minister missed it.

*Mr. de Charette had a reason to walk out of the ministerial meeting when he did. He had been briefing journalists in another room, when an aide called him back into the main meeting to restate French objections to an important US proposal. "I'll be back in 20 minutes," he told journalists. He was, and during this second part of his press briefing, other delegations paid tribute to Christopher.

*Did De Charette he know he would miss a tribute to his American colleague when he walked out of the meeting? The French say no: The official tribute had not been scheduled, and only a few delegations knew that it would occur. France was not one of them. The Americans say the tribute had already begun as De Charette left the room, hence it must have been a deliberate snub.

There are serious tensions in US-French relations, and last week's NATO meeting had more than its share of tense moments, especially over French demands that the US yield NATO's Southern Command to a European.

"There are lots of issues between France and the United States, but the most important is the Southern Command. Solve that, and the others will fall into place," said French government spokesman Katherine Colonna.

French diplomats also fear that the US aims to replace France as a dominant influence in Africa, and to squeeze France out of a role in the Mideast peace process.

These tensions are exacerbated by tough challenges at home for ruling conservatives in France. Unemployment is inching toward 13 percent, and public approval for a president who won election in 1995 on a pledge to increase jobs is at a record low. In such a climate, national image abroad counts.

The international power that appears to be challenging France's role is the United States, and French diplomats clearly resent it. You can see it in small things: For example, French diplomats often give public accounts of how the Bosnian conflict was resolved without ever mentioning the Dayton accords or the US role in achieving them. Instead, they refer to the "peace accords signed in Paris."

It's the little things

Toasts are also about counting in the world. Without civility and respect in little things, it's harder to solve the big things. De Charette missed one in NATO last week, and there is at least a reasonable doubt as to why.

But, for the record, here's a statement the French foreign minister did make about his American counterpart at a press briefing in Brussels on Dec. 6: "I have worked nearly 19 months with Warren Christopher. He's a very precise man, very determined, with a remarkable grasp of the issues. It's very good to work with partners like that, and I have fond memories of conversations with Warren Christopher. I greatly admire his talent and his professionalism, as well as his personal qualities. I wish him much success in his future endeavors."

It would have made a nice toast at NATO headquarters four days later.

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