| US President George W. Bush Bush kisses Cherie Blair, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, near St Petersburg on Saturday. (Reuters)
Evian, June 1 (Reuters): Presidents George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac smiled for the cameras today at the start of a Group of Eight summit overshadowed by the US-French clash over the Iraq war and concern over Washington’s next moves.
Bush got a short handshake and stiff smile from his loudest critic on arrival in Evian, the French spa on Lake Geneva hosting this year’s summit of leading industrial democracies. Chirac gave other leaders a much warmer welcome.
Both Bush and Chirac have said the Iraq dispute, in which France led Germany and Russia in opposing US invasion plans, was now history and both sides should look to the future.
But even as it may be too early to smoke a peace pipe, Bush made a gesture in that direction today by offering Chirac a set of leather-bound books on American Indian culture. Chirac, long known for his interest in primitive African and Oceanic art, “appreciated this gesture of friendship and thanked President Bush,” a French official said.
Bush will meet Chirac tomorrow morning but leave Evian that afternoon, a day before the G8 summit ends, making this what a local newspaper dubbed a “stopover summit” sandwiched in between other high-level meetings in Russia and West Asia. “I can’t imagine they’ll meet without talking about Iraq,” Chirac spokeswoman Catherine Colonna told journalists. “If they do it, it will not be to return to the past — that would hardly be useful — but to look to the future.”
On the summit’s sidelines, a senior US official issued a veiled warning to Paris not to try to rally Europeans against Washington again, while Colonna stressed France sought a “multipolar world” with a key role for the UN.
Colonna did not rule out a summit discussion about the US dollar’s recent sharp decline, an issue G8 leaders have been trying to play down, and said the meeting should send the world “a message of confidence on economic growth.” Out beyond several heavily-guarded security rings, anarchists and anti-capitalists rampaged through towns in France and neighbouring Switzerland smashing shops and blocking roads to protest against the rich men’s club they say rules the world.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators met for the main anti-G8 protest at the French-Swiss border south of Geneva, watched by a massive turnout of French and Swiss riot police. Protesters charge the Group of Eight — the US, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Canada and Russia — is an elitist club that runs the world economy.
South African President Thabo Mbeki, one of some 12 guest leaders at Evian, said African countries felt development aid pledges from earlier summits had not been honoured.
The G8 leaders arrived in Geneva, the nearest international airport, and helicoptered over Europe’s largest lake to a luxury hotel above Evian where the June 1-3 summit is being held.
Leaders of 11 developing countries, including China, India, Brazil and Nigeria, mostly crossed Lake Geneva by boat from Lausanne to attend a special session of talks on Africa, debt relief, AIDS and access to clean water and cheap medicines. UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and the heads of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation also attended.
Bush arrived after a reconciliation meeting in St Petersburg with Russian President Vladimir Putin and a friendly handshake with Iraq-war opponent German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Bush’s next moves could prove divisive. He has paved his way to Evian with proposals to track illegal shipments of weapons of mass destruction, pressure Iran and North Korea to curb nuclear programmes and encourage Europeans to give up their opposition to genetically modified food.
Washington accuses Iran and North Korea of clandestinely developing atomic weapons. Bush and Putin discussed Tehran’s nuclear programme in St Petersburg but Russia says it will continue building a nuclear power plant in Iran.
Colonna said France thought Bush’s plan for a global pact to seize illegal shipments of weapons was worth studying, but asked who would do this and under what legal authority.
A British official said a summit declaration would brand terrorism and weapons of mass destruction “the pre-eminent threat to international security”. In a veiled warning to Chirac, a senior US official on Bush’s plane told journalists that terrorists hoped Western countries would continue squabbling rather than join to fight the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
“The forces out there that want to destabilise, that want to engage in terrorism (and) build weapons of mass destruction would like nothing better than to have the Western alliance... in an internecine battle about whose power needs to be checked,” the official said.
Ways to revive the sluggish world economy will come up for discussion at tomorrow morning’s session, followed by a working lunch on issues such as West Asia and Iraq.