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Bush, Chirac Find Common Ground

Despite fundamental differences, the leaders are united on the peace effort in the Middle East and exchange conciliatory words.

June 03, 2003|Sebastian Rotella and Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writers

EVIAN, France — At their first one-on-one meeting since the Iraq war caused a crisis in U.S.-French relations, President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac pledged Monday to work for peace in the Middle East, improve conditions in the developing world and restore transatlantic harmony.

The 25-minute meeting in Evian, site of the three-day Group of 8 summit, gave the appearance of thawing the chill between two men with strong and divergent politics and personalities.

But summits are about symbolism. Bush balanced the smiles and mutual praise with another powerful gesture: He left the summit a day early for peace talks in the Middle East.

Although Chirac said Bush's hasty departure was more than justified, the context of their encounter suggested that fundamental differences persist behind the facade of rapproche- ment. The two countries still disagree, analysts and officials on both sides say, about how the world should work, the extent to which U.S. supremacy should be restrained by international institutions, and the significance of diplomatic rituals such as G-8 summits.

Chirac's rhetoric here, especially his overtures to Africa and other developing regions, reinforced his position as the self-styled leader of a countercurrent to U.S. hegemony. Bush's actions, especially the brevity of his visit, were interpreted in France as an expression of a lingering grudge and impatience with the intricacies of multilateralism.

Before arriving in Evian, Bush visited Poland, a partner in the Iraq war. He also went to Russia, where he spent more time with President Vladimir V. Putin -- a war critic -- than he did here with Chirac. The French, accomplished students of diplomatic nuance, concluded that their stature in Washington has not fully recovered from the Iraq fracas.

"Of course those details of the trip are all carefully planned, and it is all symbolic," said Fredric Bozo, a senior fellow at the French Institute for International Relations. "It's clear that the Americans are saying that 'Old Europe' doesn't count as much as it used to. It's a unilateralist message."

Still, Bush and Chirac acted like men intent on putting bad blood behind them. Bush told journalists that he respected the advice of Chirac -- at 70 an elder statesman among the G-8 leaders -- about the U.S. initiative to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

"He's a man who knows a lot about the Middle East, he has got good judgment about the Middle East, and we will spend some time discussing that," Bush said.

In fact, most of their private meeting focused on Lebanon and Syria, a senior Bush administration official said later. Bush listened to Chirac's advice on how to bring those nations into the peace process, and Chirac said he "totally supports the 'road map' " for an Israeli-Palestinian accord, the official said.

Bush and Chirac sat in wrought-iron chairs on the terrace of the sumptuous Royal Hotel overlooking a sun-dappled garden, where flowers of yellow and white flowed down a lawn to the shore of Lake Geneva. In comments to reporters, the U.S. president spoke directly about U.S.-French tensions.

"I know there's a lot of people in both our countries wondering whether or not we could actually sit down and have a comfortable conversation," Bush said. "And the answer is: absolutely. We can have disagreements, but that doesn't mean we have to be disagreeable to each other."

Chirac, for whom this G-8 summit represents a foreign policy milestone, said the Mideast peace mission was a legitimate reason for Bush to depart early from France's mega-event.

"I would simply express a very strong wish that the important meeting that President Bush will have this evening ... in Egypt be a success," Chirac said. "We regret, naturally, that he is obliged to leave sooner than scheduled, but it's for a cause to which we are all profoundly attached, that of peace in the Middle East."

In a departure from the indignant resentment expressed by his top aides in recent weeks, Bush said he respected Chirac's tenacity in the Iraq dispute.

"Listen, we must be frank. We went through a difficult period," Bush said. "I understand his position. He made it very clear to me in the very beginning. There was no question where Jacques Chirac stood. And I made it clear where I stood. And that's why I can say we've got good relations, because we're able to be very honest with each other."

Those conciliatory words are sure to be scrutinized by French officials, who are grappling to comprehend Bush's highly personal approach to diplomacy. Chirac and his aides have been surprised by the vehemence of the anti-French backlash in the United States.

"It's essentially a problem of personality, especially on Bush's side with this talk of punishing or pardoning France," Bozo said. Neither government intends to back down from its position on the war or its overall foreign policy approach, he said. But both realize they cannot do without each other, according to people on both sides.

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