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Retiring US Envoy to France Reflects on Relations

Lisa Bryant

Ambassador Howard H. Leach
U.S. Ambassador to France Howard H. Leach is leaving Paris after weathering some of the stormiest years of U.S.-French relations in recent history. A businessman from San Francisco, Mr. Leach had the difficult job of maintaining ties as tempers flared over the Iraq war.

During an interview, Ambassador Leach said even during the sharpest periods of difference between the United States and France over the war in Iraq, the lines of communication were always open in Paris.

"The French officials continued to be available and we were always able to talk to each other," he said. "We had strong differences of opinions at times, but we were always able to continue discussions in a reasonably cordial tone."

Mr. Leach spoke at his office at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, just days before he is to return to the United States. He spent nearly four years in Paris as Washington's envoy to France. He could not have anticipated the rocky ride ahead when it came to U.S. French relations, when he was appointed in July 2001.

Two-months later, Washington and New York reeled from back-to-back terrorist attacks, sparking an outpouring of sympathy. "We are all Americans," France's leading Le Monde newspaper wrote. And French President Jacques Chirac became the first foreign leader to visit the United States after the strikes.

But major disagreements between France and the United States soon followed: over the international Criminal Court, global warming, and trade barriers, but mostly over Iraq. Paris led international opposition against the U.S.-led war.

Today, Mr. Leach says French views about Iraq and about President Bush may have changed.

"You read in the media, not was France wrong, but was George Bush right?," he said. "And I think some of their intellectuals and some of their leading political thinkers are observing some of the changes that are taking place in the whole Middle East, and the positive reaction of the people in the Middle East to the opportunities to pursue democracy. So I think the French are saying perhaps George Bush did have some things right there."

Overall, most analysts agree that relations between Paris and Washington have improved considerably. The two sides have worked together to pressure Syria to leave Lebanon, and Washington has endorsed European diplomacy to persuade Iran to give up its alleged nuclear weapons program.

Although the United States opposes French efforts to lift a European arms embargo against China, the two have struck a compromise without, as Mr. Leach puts it," any broken crockery" in other areas, such as whether to judge Sudanese in the International Criminal Court.

Robert Pingeon, the Paris-based head of Republicans Abroad Europe, part of the international wing of the Republican Party, praises Ambassador Leach for helping improve transatlantic relations.

"He had a rough ride, and I think he came out of it with dignity," he said. "And I think the French-American relationship is improving now, despite bumps on the road that will certainly continue. But I think he contributed to a kind of civil dialogue."

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier has also praised Mr. Leach's tenure in Paris.

Mr. Barnier credited Mr. Leach as having a wisdom and availability to French authorities. Mr. Leach did his part, Mr. Barnier said, in establishing better relations between Americans and Europeans.

But other analysts, including Patrick Sabatier, an editor for France's Liberation newspaper, fault Mr. Leach for not being fluent in French - unlike his two Democrat Party predecessors, former ambassadors Felix Rohatyn and Pamela Harriman.

Overall, Mr. Sabatier believes Mr. Leach was not very visible on the French public scene. On the other hand, he says, it would have been very difficult for any U.S. envoy to persuade French decision makers and the French public that the U.S.-led war in Iraq was necessary.

Mr. Leach will be returning to his former career as a business executive in the San Francisco area. Asked to name what he considered his major success as Ambassador to France, he said: "Keeping the lines of communications open and reasonably cordial during a very tough period." Asked to list any failures, Mr. Leach added simply: not to have further eased tensions between France and the United States.

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