WASHINGTON – He's hotter than a steaming dish of crisp french fries right out of the oil served in the House of Representatives office building cafeterias. Oops. Make that freedom fries.
The French ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, 56, has been in Washington for fewer than four months but currently is more sought-after in the nation's capital than any other foreign diplomat. Sometimes, it seems, he says wearily, that the war that is looming is between France and the United States.
Handsome, polished, nattily dressed, and able to make his English understood over his French accent, he's in demand for breakfasts, dinners, banquets, seminars, parties, corporate conventions, TV news shows, TV talk shows, radio shows. And the topic is always the same: Why is France leading the pack trying to buck the United States over when to force Iraq to disarm?
When French president Jacques Chirac vowed that if necessary, France will veto a U.S. resolution authorizing force against Iraq, the State Department said the French position was disturbing and “sends a wrong signal to Baghdad.''
At a breakfast with reporters yesterday, Mr. Levitte was deferential in all comments about the Bush administration's position that time is running out for the Iraqi dictator. But, he made clear, “We disagree.''
The current “crisis'' in the American-French relationship, he insists, will not end the friendship despite enormous public disapproval in the states of France's position.
He concedes, “I agree this is probably the most difficult moment in our relations.'' [But] “you [the United States] saved us twice in two world wars, and we will never forget that.''
He said that when he presented his ambassadorial credentials to Mr. Bush at the White House last December, the President “told me France is the best ally in the war against terrorism. Why? Because unfortunately, we suffered a lot from Islamic terrorists.''
Mr. Levitte says Mr. Chirac and President Bush have maintained a “warm'' relationship throughout the current impasse, but the White House says that the tapestry of that relationship is rapidly becoming threadbare. The two men have not spoken lately. Mr. Levitte takes pains to insist the French are not disdaining the American people, only the policy toward Iraq. And many in France, where 78 percent of the people oppose war with Iraq, nonetheless worry about the lost tourism and export dollars that a seismic rupture in the American-French relationship could mean.
Mr. Levitte invariably points out that France regards Saddam Hussein as a “bloody dictator.'' But if the United Nations goes after him, Mr. Levitte argues, what country with a cruel dictator is next? North Korea? Iran? Syria? And, he asks, “what if India felt an imminent threat from Pakistan and launched a pre-emptive strike. Would the United States support that?”
Mr. Levitte has been a career diplomat for 33 years, serving in posts in Hong Kong and Beijing.
He does not get embroiled in petty arguments. Besieged for comment this week about the move to designate french fries as “freedom fries'' and french toast as “freedom toast '' in House office building cafeterias, Mr. Levitte politely declined.
But on serious matters, Mr. Levitte is more than willing to talk. And talk. And talk.
He wants it understood that France is not a pacifist nation but the number one contributor of troops to NATO and that France accepts that force may be necessary against Iraq but only “as a very last resort.''
France believes U.N. arms inspector Hans Blix is correct that it would take about four months for inspections to succeed in proving Iraq has no more weapons or in ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Levitte said. “If inspectors said they were at a dead end, France would use force. The question is why now? As long as inspections are producing results, let's go on.”
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