A full-scale diplomatic row broke out last night between Algeria and France after Algiers abruptly announced the cancellation of President Liamine Zeroual's planned meeting with President Jacques Chirac at the United Nations, accusing France of "attacking the dignity and sovereignty of the Algerian people".
No reason was given for the sudden cancellation of the meeting, scheduled to take place in New York on the fringes of the UN's three-day 50th anniversary celebrations, which began yesterday. However, it was reported to be President Zeroual who requested that it be called off.
The meeting had been the subject of fierce political controversy in France, and outrage among Islamic militants in Algeria, since it was made public two weeks ago. It had also prompted a heavy reinforcement of security across France, with 2,500 extra troops being deployed on the streets following a threat from an Algerian Islamic terrorist group to continue its bomb attacks unless the meeting was halted.
It had been expected that the pair would meet discreetly at the New York hotel at which both are staying during the celebration, but Mr Chirac said Mr Zeroual had "decided to request a postponement" at the last moment "because of a failure to agree on its modalities".
He said that on his arrival in New York "we were informed that the Algerian side was insisting very much that this meeting should have media publicity, that it take place under the gaze of cameras and photographers". Mr Chirac said he was unable to meet this demand."I considered this meeting as a conversation with the Algerian head of state, but since the election campaign has begun in Algeria, I did not want there to be any ambiguity," he said.
Before leaving Paris, Mr Chirac had undertaken that the meeting would be low-key, and without television cameras, in an attempt to counter criticism that it would imply French support for Mr Zeroual in next month's Algerian presidential election.
The language from Algiers yesterday was virulent. A presidential spokesman was quoted as saying that the meeting "has lost its purpose".
Alluding to France's colonial inheritance and history of interference in Algeria since the country's independence, the spokesman denounced "the persistence of unilateralist attitudes" and the "escalation of public remarks that can be seen as an attack on the dignity and sovereignty of the Algerian people".
In a detail that will be particularly unwelcome to Mr Chirac, the Algerian spokesman said the meeting had actually been proposed by the French foreign minister, Herve de Charette, who categorically denied this yesterday. French officials insisted that the meeting had been "requested" by Mr Zeroual and that Mr Chirac had been left with little choice but to accept without precipitating a diplomatic incident.
The cancellation of the meeting by Algeria leaves Mr Chirac in the worst possible diplomatic position. He had weathered a storm of criticism at home and abroad which accused him variously of consorting with the leader of a repressive regime, favouring Mr Zeroual's candidacy in the coming presidential election, behaving as a colonial power, and interfering in Algeria's internal affairs.
In recent days he mounted a concerted damage-limitation exercise, saying he would present the Algerian leader with the French point of view and would argue that the coming elections should be seen to be "fair and democratic". Now, it appears, all that effort was for nothing; Mr Chirac has been made to look weak, and his diplomacy to appear disastrous.