French fear US campaign of disinformation

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The Independent Online

The Franco-American feud over Iraq deepened yesterday when the French Foreign Ministry ordered its diplomats to monitor the American media for signs of an orchestrated disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting France, portraying it as an ally of Saddam Hussein.

Jean-David Lévitte, the French ambassador to the United States, has written to Congress and the Bush administration to complain at what an embassy official called "an ugly campaign to destroy the image of France", fostered by hardliners. Senior civilian officials at the Pentagon are among the prime suspects.

The counter-offensive follows a spate of stories – all heatedly denied by the French government – alleging French collaboration with Saddam's regime, illegal weapons sales by France and reports that French diplomats in Damascus issued passports to fleeing members of the former regime to help them escape to Europe.

At a regular briefing yesterday Marie Masdupuy, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, said the French people had been "deeply shocked" by the "untrue accusations which have appeared in the US press". Informal boycotts across America of French goods such as cheese and wine have also raised fears that the dispute could cause longer-term economic damage.

A senior US administration official dismissed the French charges as "utter nonsense", The Washington Post reported yesterday. But the accusations have a discernible pattern, with the most spectacular recent ones proffered by the unnamed "US intelligence source" in the conservative Washington Times, which is close to the Pentagon.

Paris has been trying to repair the damage done to transatlantic relations by France's threat to use its UN Security Council veto, which scuppered Washington's attempts to secure a second resolution specifically authorising the use of force to remove Saddam.