Old friends

Posted: Dec 10, 2001 12:00 AM
PARIS -- To understand Franco-American relations before Sept. 11, you need do no more than look at President Bush's pick as ambassador to France. Bush didn't choose a fawning Francophile eager to patch up disagreements on armaments and environmental policies. Instead, he chose San Francisco businessman Howard H. Leach, a big GOP donor who started taking intensive French lessons this year and doesn't speak breathlessly about "the international community." Leach says he didn't ask for the plum French post; Bush called and offered it to him. Why? As a "noncareer" ambassador, Leach noted from his embassy office, "I have no career track to protect." Members of the French foreign service at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs told me earlier this week that they are "open-minded" about the less-than-fluent-in-French Leach, who, I might add, has deep pockets. They insist that reports that the French government has been anti-American are greatly exaggerated. The French simply are against "unilateralism." Since Sept. 11, Leach and the French both happily agree that the French people are not anti-American. Never were. Leach remembers the 20,000-plus letters received at the embassy after the Sept. 11 attacks and the "mountains of flowers" placed before the embassy gate, as well as the offers from Parisians to put up Americans stranded in the city before regular flights resumed to the United States. As the French ambassador to the United States, Francois Bujon de l'Estang, put it when he spoke with The San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board last month, France and America are like an old married couple, who bicker a lot, but "when the chips are down, we are always together." Today, the United States needs France and France needs the United States, in ways the two nations haven't needed each other since World War II. "We face a situation that was totally unknown before," explained French Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Bernard Valero. "The enemy has no army, no territory, no population, and we don't exactly know what he's fighting for." Savvy countries do know that to defeat the terrorist networks, the anti-terrorist alliance must share intelligence -- and the French are quite advanced when it comes to espionage surveillance -- and unite in drying up terrorist funding worldwide. The French are especially sensitive to potential terrorist activities in the wake of a post-Sept. 11 soccer match between France and Algeria. French citizens of Algerian descent started chanting to drown out the French national anthem, "the Marseillaise." Some even chanted the name of Osama bin Laden. The incident left the French populace and the government acutely aware that France, too, is vulnerable. Today, the French remark at how "clever" -- yes, clever -- President Bush is. They praise his sangfroid, his ability to cobble together an international coalition to fight terrorism, his shrewdness in not bombing without planning and his sensitivity in reaching out to friendly Muslims worldwide. Observers wonder when the best-friend status will falter, especially after French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair finger-wagged at the Bushies who want to attack Iraq. Yes, they were critical, but their rhetoric suggests that if Bush can demonstrate that Saddam Hussein is armed with weapons of mass destruction, and if Bush can make that knowledge clear in the proper diplomatic fashion, they'll stand with the United States against Iraq. Meanwhile, Leach notes, "I don't think we're going to hear the world unilateralism any more." Well, not this week anyway.