France Polishes Its Diplomatic Image
By Charles Trueheart
The Washington Post
Thursday, October 28, 1999
PARIS, Oct. 27-Former president Charles de Gaulle once explained that
France does not recognize regimes, it recognizes states.
This distinction undergirds back-to-back visits to France this week
by Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Iranian President Mohammed Khatemi.
Jiang left Tuesday after five days in France, and Khatemi arrived this
morning for a three-day stay.
The human rights records of China and Iran have turned the visits into
stages for street protests and an impressive French security operation
that included blocking anti-Khatemi protesters at the border and predawn
arrests of Iranian dissidents today.
Critics of China and Iran have attacked the French government for according
the two leaders pomp and circumstance. The daily Le Monde called the Jiang
visit "degrading for France."
But there is little question that President Jacques Chirac and the French
government are relishing the opportunity to burnish France's position as
a major league power and, French leaders say, as a force for reform.
By embracing the Chinese and Iranian leaders, France stands to gain
in several ways: as a trading partner, as a diplomatic intermediary and
as a credible alternative to what Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine calls
"the hyperpower," the United States.
France has long cut an independent figure among the major democracies,
notably by nurturing close ties to Arab states, including Iraq, as a counterpoint
to perceived closeness between the United States and Israel. Since Chirac
took office in 1995, France has sought to strengthen commercial as well
as political ties in Asia, all in an effort to cultivate new markets and
especially friendship with a nascent superpower like China.
"This is normal French diplomacy," said a Western diplomat
here. "These visits play up to their paradigm, which is to have a
voice on every issue of consequence in the world."
Chirac invited Jiang and his wife, Wang Jing, to spend last weekend
at his estate in the French heartland. The memorable image was of Jiang
dancing cheek to cheek with Bernadette Chirac, France's first lady. In
a reciprocal gesture of good will, Jiang announced that China would buy
28 Airbus passenger jets from the European aerospace consortium.
A clash of cultures nearly scuttled the visit by the Iranian president,
whose representatives balked last spring at the prospect of a French state
dinner that included wine. Alcohol is proscribed in Islamic tradition,
but apparently required in French tradition.
So negotiators ultimately recast the Khatemi state visit as "an
official invitation extended by the President of the Republic," obviating
the need for a "state" dinner. To wash down the food provided
by their French hosts, Khatemi and his aides will be served "refreshments,"
according to Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Anne Gazeau-Secret.
Khatemi is the first Iranian president to visit France since the 1979
revolution. Since his election in May 1997, he has raised the possibility
of a new openness in Iran. Khatemi is reportedly shopping for a $1.5 billion
loan that Iran desperately needs. Iran has already awarded oil and gas
contracts to French companies Elf and TotalFina, and on the eve of Khatemi's
visit, France's Alstom Transportation Inc. said it had won a $200 million
contract to build locomotive engines for Iran.
Khatemi is also pursuing the normalization initiatives that already
have warmed Iran's relations with the European Union and led to the lifting
of the Iranian government's declaration of a death sentence against British
author Salman Rushdie.
French officials said human rights issues were on the list of topics
to be taken up with Khatemi. They referred specifically to the fates of
13 Iranian Jews arrested as Israeli spies and to student protesters detained
without charges in Tehran in July.
"The defense of these just causes will certainly not advance if
we were to renounce holding talks with President Khatemi, who was elected
. . . against the most archaic elements of the Islamic revolution,"
Vedrine told the National Assembly.
Dominique Moisi, of the French Institute for International Relations,
said the Jiang and Khatemi visits "look alike--they seem to be about
the triumph of realpolitik over human rights concerns." But he said
they are very different under the surface.
"By receiving Khatemi, France is expressing hope for the future,
for a more moderate, realistic, open Iran," Moisi said. "By receiving
Jiang, France is accepting the fact that China will not and cannot change
in the foreseeable future."