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The Nation

When U.S. and France Tussle, Louisiana Is Hit

The state suffered from the Iraq war fallout, but a major celebration could help heal the rift.

August 27, 2003|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — When the relationship between the United States and France soured on the eve of the war in Iraq, no place had more to lose than Louisiana.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, when the fledgling United States bought French-controlled territory from Napoleon Bonaparte. And the state decided to go all out -- with museum exhibits, specially commissioned operas, a signature French Beaujolais. The pageantry would show the world that Louisiana is open for business, mature beyond its image as "the place for fun and food and Mardi Gras and that's about it," said Damien Regnard, president of the French-American Chamber of Commerce in New Orleans.

Then came France's contention that President Bush was rushing recklessly to war. Bashing the French became sport in the United States.

In Louisiana, which is steeped in French heritage, the results of the divide between traditional allies were tangible and destructive.

Citing an inhospitable business climate in America, French companies -- which hold an estimated $1.8 billion in assets in the state -- canceled visits to scout out investment opportunities. A delegation of cancer and biotechnology specialists from Louisiana called off a research and investment trip to Lyon, France.

Louisiana officials concede that the timing of the rift could not have been worse; many of the ceremonies and exhibits marking the bicentennial played specifically on the long relationship enjoyed by France and the United States. One French museum reneged on a promise to lend New Orleans a priceless clock because its curators feared that American zealots would destroy it, Regnard said.

Soon, however, the clouds that have hung over the bicentennial might part. Diplomats are quietly and delicately attempting to piece together a meeting in New Orleans that would mark a public reconciliation of sorts for Bush and French President Jacques Chirac.

The meeting would take place Dec. 20 during a ceremony marking the culmination of the anniversary -- including a reenactment of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase treaties. The meeting, because of the keen focus on their relationship, could give the bicentennial more heft and publicity than it would have enjoyed if the spat between the United States and France hadn't developed in the first place.

The two leaders reaffirmed their alliance this summer after a private meeting in the French town of Evian, but tensions persist. Just this week, France resisted calls from the United States to build a more international military coalition in Iraq, saying that world leaders lacked a mandate from the United Nations.

According to diplomatic sources speaking on condition of anonymity, Bush and Chirac are tentatively scheduled to meet again late next month at the United Nations. There, they hope, Bush will invite Chirac to New Orleans.

The leaders are engaged in a diplomatic waltz, the sources said, with neither wanting to commit first to attending.

French officials said that although Chirac spent two years in Louisiana as a student at Tulane University in the 1950s and had fond memories of New Orleans, he was waiting to hear whether a formal invitation was coming. "I guess you would have to ask the White House if [Bush is] planning to do that," said Eric Bayer, an official with the French Consulate in New Orleans.

For their part, White House officials have brushed the issue aside. One of Bush's scheduling officers said: "I assure you this [bicentennial] event is not on anybody's radar screen at this point."

But a French official said the negotiations were concrete enough that a tentative script had been proposed for the September exchange in New York: Bush would begin the conversation; Chirac would interrupt to ask when they could meet in public and declare their alliance secure; Bush would respond that the Dec. 20 event would be a natural venue.

There are complicating factors. Chief among them is that several elected officials in Louisiana spent much of the spring lobbying to ban Chirac from attending. Louisiana officials earlier had invited the leaders informally; a formal invitation has to come from Bush because Chirac is a head of state, officials said.

Louisiana Gov. M.J. "Mike" Foster Jr., who once said on his radio show that Chirac had "gone off the deep end" in opposing the war, has since softened his views. Steven Johnston, a spokesman for the Republican governor, said this week that Foster now prefers to leave the decision on whether to invite Chirac to Bush.

Some in Louisiana, however, particularly conservatives, remain torn between the state's French roots and their own lingering vitriol toward France.

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