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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
French confront US 'smears'
By William Horsley
BBC European affairs correspondent

The French Government has addressed the problem of the deep chill in its relations with the United States by making a public complaint about what it calls a campaign of denigration against France by American officials.

Without doubt France has become the butt of sometimes wicked media coverage in the US over its defiance of US policy on Iraq.

Jean-David Levitte
Ambassador Levitte wrote to government officials and congressmen

When the popular TV cartoon programme The Simpsons coined the phrase "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" to describe the French, the phrase caught on.

The French Government was shocked by such attacks, and by the severity of US condemnation of France's pledge to use its veto at the United Nations to try to stop the US using military force against Saddam Hussein's regime.

Now the French ambassador in Washington, Jean-David Levitte, backed by the exceptionally influential Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, has sought to embarrass US congressmen and government officials by writing to them to point out what he says are malicious lies about France, based on information from unnamed officials in President Bush's administration.

The US Government believes French behaviour poses a serious problem, which may get worse as France leads moves to challenge the US in Europe's name

Among the most damaging reports is one that French diplomats helped some wanted Iraqi leaders to escape from US forces by providing them with travel papers.

The reactions so far from the US Government have been cool.

A White house spokesman denied the French allegation about an official disinformation campaign.

Dialogue of the deaf

A senior French member of parliament attending the European Convention meeting here in Brussels told me he believed US-French relations would soon be put on a normal footing.

But he said the French Government would stand by the rightness of its actions over Iraq.

This suggests that what is going on may be a dialogue of the deaf.

The US Government believes French behaviour poses a serious problem, which may get worse as France leads moves to challenge the US in Europe's name.

The French protest implies that problems in the relationship come from some kind of misunderstanding, which might go away if the facts were set out clearly.

The crisis in relations between these two supposed allies is deep and looks like being long-lasting.

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