PARIS, Feb. 8 -- It had all the trappings of a modern-day Daniel in the Lion's Den: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice venturing bravely into the heart of French intellectual opposition to America, the Institute of Political Sciences, an elite school in the heart of Paris's trendy Left Bank.
But if the roar from the audience was mostly polite and restrained, that was partly because only a handful of the school's 5,500 students were allowed near the auditorium where Rice spoke, and the initial questions were vetted in advance by the school and the State Department.
The first student chosen to question Rice was 24-year-old Benjamin Barnier, the son of Foreign Minister Michel Barnier. He asked Rice about the possibility that Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority might opt to form a theocratic government, allowing Rice to expound on the evolution of Iraqi democracy as a process of negotiation.
But that was not the question Barnier had wanted to ask most, he said later. That one, submitted to the school on Monday as required under the ground rules, was: "George Bush is not particularly well perceived in the world, particularly in the Middle East. Can you do something to change that?" That question was rejected, but he was told he could ask about the Shiites.
"I gave two, and they chose one," Barnier said.
A State Department official said later that the U.S. Embassy had only asked the school to choose five people to ask the first two questions and that the rest could come from anyone. Rice took a total of five questions.
Like the questions, access to the hall was controlled. Of 500 seats, only 150 went to the school's students and staff. Another 150 were given to French opinion leaders and government officials. Fifty went to American organizations, including the American University of Paris, the French-American Foundation, the American Chamber of Commerce and Sisters, a group of black American professional women. Seats were also reserved for officials of the French Institute on International Relations, which initially had been considered as a possible venue for Rice's speech.
When Rice spoke, the first row of her audience included the French ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte; former prime minister and presidential confidant Alain Juppe; and former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
Meanwhile, scores of students from the school, which is also called Sciences Po, were kept well away from the session. Several complained of being pushed back by police. And some students who did manage to secure a ticket left disappointed.
"There was a lot of 'liberty,' " said Jennifer Brett, 26, an American from Columbia University who is at Sciences Po on an exchange program. "It was liberty, liberty, liberty and freedom. . . . I find their justifications about the war for the liberation of the Iraqi people to be a little lame, when before it was all about weapons of mass destruction."
Barnier was more upbeat, saying he hoped the speech would help to mend French-U.S. ties. "What I heard is the relation between France and the U.S. is not that bad," he said. "People are still buying champagne. And the hip-hop singers still drink cognac, so that's good for us."