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Paris bans protests ahead of Bush's visit

Financial Times | June 3 2004

Demonstrations have been banned in central Paris throughout this week to ensure no hostile protests are in evidence to disturb President George W. Bush's brief presence in the French capital on Saturday, where he will be dining with President Jacques Chirac.

This blanket ban cannot conceal the groundswell of French hostility to the US president and the unpopularity of his policies on Iraq and the broader Middle East.

It nevertheless underscores Mr Chirac's determination to make Mr Bush's stay in France for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day celebrations a friendly occasion and a chance to improve the chilly state of Franco-American relations.

At the beginning of the year Mr Bush had yet to confirm his attendance at the D-Day celebrations of June 6, such was the residue of accumulated mistrust after France's opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq. Even when confirmation came, it seemed his time on French soil would be limited to a diplomatic minimum.

Since then an informal dinner has been arranged as a sign that the leaders accept the need to talk face to face, which has been accepted by French officials as evidence of a modest thaw between two men of different generations and divergent global views.

Paris is well aware that the US president is embroiled in a tough re-election campaign and that Mr Bush needs to wring domestic political capital from his D-Day appearance on the beaches of Normandy.

However, French officials hope he will not seek to link too openly the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany with the US's removal of the dictatorship in Baghdad and Mr Bush's broader war against terrorism.

Any such muddying of the historical waters will not endear the US president to his French hosts. Mr Chirac has invited German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Russian leader Vladimir Putin to the ceremonies as a symbol of Europe's historic reconciliation.

President Bush has eased tensions with a friendly telephone call on May 25 to the French head of state. But this contact was less about D-Day and more to do with Mr Bush's desire to obtain French support for a new resolution on Iraq within the United Nations Security Council.

A year on from the awkward Bush-Chirac meeting at the G8 summit in Evian in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime, French officials believe the onus is on Washington to take more account of its international allies over Iraq's future. Mr Chirac has been notably restrained in recent months, avoiding any overt criticism of the US's handling of the Iraqi occupation.

But the measured response of the Elysée to the Bush phone call - that the US was moving in the right direction - still showed Washington had to make up further ground. Mr Chirac is insisting that the June 30 handover of sovereignty by the US-led administration in Baghdad not be "cosmetic". This means the Iraqis must be seen to be in control of their rich oil resources and enjoy a real say in security matters.

Mr Chirac has made it clear that France will abstain if not satisfied with the resolution. French officials say this is not an opportunistic threat but a means of demonstrating to Washington that UN backing for the new government in Iraq after June 30 can only be credible if also endorsed by the opponents of the invasion - a similar line advanced by Russia.

France has also told the US it is not willing to send troops to Iraq under any circumstances: only that it would be ready to train Iraqi security forces at a later date.

It is also linking discussions on resolving Iraq's debt to being able to deal with a proper sovereign authority in Baghdad.

The debt issue was the first area in which Paris-Washington relations began to thaw late last year, following Mr Bush's appointment of James Baker, former US secretary of state, as a special envoy.

The other key area of disagreement is that of the US's Middle East policy. Mr Chirac believes Mr Bush's plan to create an "arc of freedom" from Morocco to Afghanistan is unrealistic as long as Washington remains so openly supportive of the Sharon government in Israel.

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