The pope moves in impenetrable seclusion; not so the president of France. The cameras were dead on him when Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, 39th of the 42 African chiefs of state in town, filed by. There had been much protest against receiving Mugabe. The European Union, protesting torture against his own people, had forbidden Mugabe entrance into European territory. Chirac set that obstacle aside, with no greater trepidation than he seems to have shown in setting the Franco-U.S. alliance aside, by inviting him to Paris.
But hark, when they came face-to-face, Chirac merely extended his arm for a conventional handshake. This was the diplomatic equivalent of tripping the guillotine blade down on his neck, because everybody else received a Gallic embrace. This greeting with chiefs of state is absolutely rigid, calling for the greeter to place his cheek to the left of the visitor's face, then to the right, then back again to the left.
These formalities are tightly observed. The late Clare Boothe Luce, who was both a journalist and a diplomat, once wrote that on greeting Mme. Chiang Kai-shek, wife of the president of China, she had been instructed to exchange one reciprocal bow after another until the dominant stopped, normally after completing the seventh bow. Anything less -- or more -- meant something hostile, and there is speculation just what that could mean for Mugabe. Mr. Chirac spoke, in his formal address to the black leaders, of the increasing reach of international law. As he spoke, another Serbian defendant was landing in Brussels to face trial for war crimes against non-Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia.
There were protests in Paris against the regal behavior of Chirac, who shone the full splendor of Paris on his guests even as the Sun King and Napoleon would have done, disdaining any thought to the implications of what a British Conservative M.P. called "the grubbiest handshake of the year," but then that reproach called public attention to its having been a handshake, not the Gallic embrace elsewhere extended.
The greeting of the Africans did not distract from the preoccupation of the diplomatic community with Iraq. Every one of the sub-Saharan states opposes molesting Saddam Hussein. The Arab League leaders will meet in Cairo on March 1 to ventilate opinion on the Iraq question. In Cairo there will be less than the unanimity being expressed in Paris. Egypt is of two minds on the war, and the historic weight of liberal British tradition is a factor. It is one thing for Hosni Mubarak to have proceeded in the tradition of his predecessors, Nasser and Sadat, as a one-man, one-party political leader; another to correlatively defend Saddam Hussein, who will not be invited to the meeting in Egypt, sparing Mubarak the diplomatic challenge of how exactly he would greet him.
The most prominent journalistic attention in Paris is being paid not to the African leaders' meeting but to the fresh cog in the U.S. Mideast operation brought on by Turkey's blatant demand for a greater price for cooperation in the pending war against Iraq. It sounds very much like sheer holdup -- the United States spends freely to get aid in its international enterprises, and we very much want bases in Turkey. But the potential cost to Turkey of siding with the United States is considerable. In the poker game being played, one can imagine Jacques Chirac promising Istanbul, if it promises to stay neutral, a 5 percent royalty on France's interest in Iraqi oil, plus four Gallic kisses the next time the Turkish foreign minister, Yasar Yakis, comes to Paris. The French kiss is a decisive diplomatic weapon, the world is prepared to believe.
The African chiefs will come and go, and Mugabe is fortified by his recognition as head of state. Perhaps he can arrange to prevent his people from viewing the snub of M. Chirac.