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At Summit, a Makeup Session

Bush meets with Chirac in his mission to mend relations frayed by the Iraq war. The French president says sessions were 'very positive.'

June 02, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

EVIAN, France — President Bush extended a hand of greeting to French President Jacques Chirac on Sunday, formally commencing a process of rebuilding relations with France after severe disagreement over the U.S. decision to go to war against Iraq.

Their handshake -- brief but not hurried, cordial but not effusive -- was a pivotal gesture in Bush's diplomatic mission to repair frayed relations with longtime allies.

That mission continued in this French spa town nestled near Switzerland, where leaders of eight global economic powers convened their annual meeting. The G-8 nations had split evenly on the Iraq war: Britain, Italy and Japan lined up behind the United States, but France, Germany, Russia and Canada were vigorously opposed.

The greeting between Bush and Chirac came as Bush arrived at the opening luncheon of G-8 leaders and those from about a dozen other countries invited to discuss development and other issues. Aware they were being watched, the pair clasped hands and turned toward the TV cameras, gave quick smiles and went to lunch. Chirac was the last of three key allies on Bush's weekend schedule who had taken an open stand against the United States' action in Iraq.

The first was Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. On Saturday, Bush attended festivities in St. Petersburg, where the two not only shook hands but spent several hours exchanging pleasantries during dinner, ballet and fireworks.

The second was German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, target of some of the most vehement complaints from the White House, who also attended the St. Petersburg gala. Bush and Schroeder, who hadn't spoken since November, exchanged greetings and a cordial handshake during dinner, U.S. and German officials said later.

Asked to compare the choreography of the various handshakes, a senior U.S. administration official laughed and said, "This is Kremlinology at its worst, OK?"

For his part, Chirac described Sunday's brief sessions with Bush as "very positive." The two plan a longer, one-on-one meeting this morning.

All the same, Chirac said, he believes most countries in the world would prefer a "multipolar" world, one in which the United States did not hold unrivaled power.

Although the strains over Iraq were still evident, the prevailing mood at the summit was to find common ground.

"Everybody talked positively. Nobody talked about the past," said Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. "Everybody was concentrating on creating a mood of solidarity."

Last week, Bush decided to cut short his appearance at the annual G-8, to fly today to Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, to preside over a meeting of Arab leaders in support of Bush's Mideast peace initiative.

This year's G-8 agenda featured an appearance Sunday by African leaders and those of other developing countries -- discussions aimed in part at answering criticism from protesters that the developed world is not doing enough to assist the disadvantaged.

This year's summit also marked the debut of Chinese President Hu Jintao -- who was elevated to his post in March -- as a G-8 observer.

The invitation to China could turn out to be the first step toward eventual membership; Russia was first invited to the then-G-7 summits in the early 1990s and became a full member in 1997.

Bush held a one-on-one meeting with Hu on Sunday that focused largely on curbing North Korea's nuclear ambitions. It was Bush's third meeting with Hu, but the first since Hu became the Chinese president. A second senior administration official said the new leader was somewhat more responsive than his predecessors.

"There was a little more give-and-take than you traditionally get," the official said.

The summit's first day was marked by protests in surrounding areas. The most violent was in Lausanne, Switzerland, across Lake Geneva from Evian, where about 400 demonstrators were arrested as they tried to block a highway.

When police tried to block the demonstration, some protesters threw stones and broke shop windows.

Local officials in France and Switzerland had advised residents to leave the region if possible for the duration of the summit, and the streets of nearby Geneva were largely deserted. Store owners boarded up windows, and demonstrators defaced them with anti-G-8 slogans.

Police forces from Germany joined those from France and Switzerland in an attempt to keep a lid on potential violence. But for the most part, there were fewer protesters than predicted, and the majority of them were peaceful.

"I came because I think it is very important to show that we don't agree with what [the G-8 leaders] decide here in Evian," said 21-year-old Cristina Maroco, a student in social work in the Swiss city of Fribourg. "It is important that they understand that the situation doesn't work the way it is now. That there are more and more rich people and more and more poor people too. They have to do something to change this."

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