Rice Breaks Ice With France's New Leaders

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Paris for meetings with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, left, and President Nicolas Sarkozy.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Paris for meetings with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, left, and President Nicolas Sarkozy. (By Francois Mori -- Associated Press)

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By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

PARIS, June 25 -- Beneath nude cherubs on a gilt ceiling and before flashing cameras at ground level, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner seemed not to know whether to kiss Condoleezza Rice or shake her hand.

So, being the perfect diplomat, he did both.

The awkward moment Sunday evening, at the conclusion of the first news conference featuring a senior U.S. official and a representative of the new French government, captured the mood of Rice's 48-hour visit to Paris: a couple on their first date.

Four years ago, then-President Jacques Chirac infuriated the White House by condemning the U.S. attack on Iraq. Congressional cafeterias renamed one of Americans' favorite fatty foods "freedom fries." Later, the two governments began attempting to call a cease-fire in the hostile rhetoric between the centuries-old allies.

With the election last month of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, an enthusiast for many things American, a full-fledged courtship has blossomed. Monday morning Sarkozy hosted Rice at the Elysee Palace; Monday night it was California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Rice flitted from ornate French ministry to ornate French ministry on her brief trip, dining with her counterpart Kouchner on Sunday night, meeting with Sarkozy and Defense Minister Hervé Morin on Monday morning. For this dance, both Paris and Washington stressed shared world views and played down disagreements.

"We very much see things eye to eye," Kouchner said in his first joint appearance with Rice, adding, "And even if we're not entirely in agreement, I think it's good that one country is able to speak frankly to one another."

During their joint appearance, Kouchner, his gray hair tousled, reflected the more casual, relaxed style of the Sarkozy administration -- at ease with the press, cracking jokes, calling on longtime reporter acquaintances by their first names. Rice, prim in a creamy white suit, stuck to the Bush administration script on tough questions lobbed by French and Middle Eastern reporters.

When a Palestinian reporter pressed Rice on the chaos in the Palestinian territories, she replied that President Mahmoud Abbas is the leader of all the Palestinian people and the only leader recognized by Washington, despite Hamas's victory in parliamentary elections.

Kouchner was more pragmatic, noting that France recognizes the political divisions in Palestinian society.

Analysts see a major stylistic change in relations, however. "The disagreements that had become almost personal between Chirac and Bush are no longer there," said Pascal Boniface, director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations.

"Sarkozy wants to prove to the French and the Europeans that he is in motion and that he is changing the country and French-U.S. relations, but on certain issues there are important disagreements," Boniface said. These include Iraq, military operations in Afghanistan and French concerns over a planned U.S. missile defense system based in Europe.

Rice also took part Monday in an international meeting on the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region, a summit called by the French government to "shake things up a little," according to Kouchner, a doctor who helped found the Nobel Prize-winning aid organization Doctors Without Borders.

"Paris and Washington have common views on the situation there," said Dominique Moisi, a senior adviser to the French Institute of International Relations. "They want to reinforce pressures against the Khartoum government."

The meeting, attended by major aid donors, the Group of Eight industrialized nations and China, resulted in no new initiatives, according to participants. The African Union did not participate in the conference.

"We really must redouble our efforts, and I think that that was the spirit of today's conference," Rice said.

Participants were pushing Sudan to accept a force of more than 20,000 U.N. and African Union peacekeepers. The troops are intended to help curb the violence in Darfur, where international experts estimate that as many as 450,000 people have died from disease and violence and 2.5 million have been displaced in the last four years of conflict.

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.

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