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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 March, 2003, 17:25 GMT
France's fence-mending missionary

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

Dominique de Villepin stepped into the lion's den in London when he came to deliver a lecture to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a bastion of the British military-political establishment.

Outside a man dressed as a chicken was standing in the sunshine.

When the French mention the war, you know things are bad
He had been sent by The Sun but he told me that he was an Iraqi chicken, whatever that meant. I think he was rather embarrassed.

The French Foreign Minister soothed the British with promises of mending friendships after the war, obligatory references to "shared values" and wartime alliances, even invoking the spirit of De Gaulle and Churchill.

When the French mention the war, you know things are bad.

Dominique de Villepin gives address
De Villepin brought his message into the heart of British establishment
He offered an olive branch to the Americans, too.

But a senior former American diplomat I spoke to afterwards murmured that the French minister had said nothing new.

It will take a long time to build those bridges.

The French might even forgive the British first and the British ( those who support the war that is) might forgive them. After all, we are used to it.

And many British rather like the French position anyway at the moment.

Mr de Villepin's line was that France, of course, had been right.

"I would like to say loud and clear," he purred "that our choices were not made against one country or another, but in the name of a certain idea of collective responsibility of a world vision."

This was a conceptual lecture and he suggested no practical plan. It is too early for that and in the formulation of a plan will come many an argument.
That reference to "one country or another" meant of course the United States and Britain but he did not name them, implying that the British had been extremely rude to name and blame France.

He looked ahead to a world in which the Security Council took decisions "by consensus" without saying what should happen if there was none. Presumably nothing.

One thing he did emphasise. The UN should take control of Iraq after the war.

His words were: "The UN must be at the heart of the reconstruction and administration of Iraq. The legitimacy of our action depends on it. We must come together to build peace together."

This was a conceptual lecture and he suggested no practical plan.

It is too early for that and in the formulation of a plan will come many an argument. Washington is not at all keen on the UN at the moment. But at least the offer is there.

Dominique de Villepin is a very attractive figure, and is not, according to fellow Frenchman Francois Heisbourg, chairman of the IISS, an "assembly line product of the French meritocracy."

Troops in Iraq
France still believes war was avoidable
He is an author (about Napoleon) and a poet as well. One felt that he spoke with the voice of France at the moment.

I also spoke to Sir John Weston, a classic Brit, in the front row of the audience.

Sir John is a former ambassador to Nato and the UN. He turned out to be critical of British policy and said that it had been a "cop-out to denounce France."

He reminded me that he had written a poem in the subject, which he is rather proud of, though it is a pastiche of something Philip Larkin once wrote. Its last two lines read:

"But tell our children we're a lesser country
If common sense is ruled by moral fervour."

I am sure that Dominque de Villepin, a fellow poet, would have approved.


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