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Bush bubbles over, Chirac chill melts

Evian, June 2 (Reuters): Presidents George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac, trying to patch up US-French relations after a deep rift over the Iraq war, spoke warm words of support for each other today in subtly different accents.

After their chilly first handshake yesterday, Bush bubbled over with personal praise for his fiercest critic while Chirac — host to the Group of Eight summit that brought them together — voiced full support for Bush’s West Asia peace plan. Both Bush and Chirac described today morning’s G8 session on the world economy as “very positive” and the US leader said they both agreed how to move forward in Iraq.

“We can have disagreements but that doesn’t mean we have to be disagreeable to each other,” Bush told reporters as they sat on a hotel terrace at this French spa overlooking Lake Geneva.

The two men appeared more relaxed than at the start of today morning’s G8 session, when Chirac efforted conversation with the US leader seated at his left while Bush sat rigidly and gave only clipped replies.

The summit was the first opportunity for the two to ease their differences, after Chirac raised US wrath by leading a “non-nyet-nein” anti-war front with Russia and Germany and tongue-lashed East European states for backing Washington. “Clearly there still are some differences the US has with France,” a senior Bush administration official said. “Nevertheless, France and the US have been allies and partners many a time before,” the official said. “Today’s meeting was about finding common ground.”

Bush, who left the summit today to attend peace talks in West Asia, made a point of praising Chirac as an expert on the turbulent region — where France often tries to present Europe as an alternative to the US.

“Today I’m going to meet with Jacques and ask his advice on West Asia,” he said, referring to a meeting he was about to start with Chirac. “He’s a man who knows a lot about West Asia, he’s got good judgment on West Asia.”

Chirac was more reserved, avoiding any such direct personal praise for Bush, but expressing his total support for the US President’s efforts to bring peace to West Asia. “Of course, we regret that he has to leave earlier than planned, but it is for a cause that we are all profoundly attached to — peace in West Asia,” Chirac said.

Chirac avoided any mention of the US-French rift, which has cast a lingering pall over the summit and led to speculation Bush was cutting short his stay as a deliberate snub to Chirac.

During their 25-minute talk, a US official said, Chirac also refrained from his usual call for a multipolar world, which rattles Washington because it is a French codeword for a world where US power is held in check through the UN.

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