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Paris blames Algeria for aborted summit

The day after the summary cancellation of President Jacques Chirac's ill-starred meeting with the Algerian president, Liamine Zeroual, in New York, officials in Paris changed their aggrieved tone to one of aggressive nonchalance, blaming Algeria for the whole affair.

On Sunday, ministers, including Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, and government MPs had crowded to the microphones to express their "regret" and call on France to "rally round Mr Chirac". Yesterday's contributions, led by Mr de Charette, amounted to saying that Algeria had requested the meeting, they cancelled it, so the loss was theirs.

The minister told a radio programme that the meeting had been called off because of an "election ploy" by Mr Zeroual, one of four candidates in Algeria's presidential election next month. Mr Chirac, Mr de Charette said, wanted "a real dialogue and not a show for the cameras ... The meeting did not happen," he said, "and that is no drama." He said he had no regrets.

The change of tone suggested an effort from Paris to cut its losses and look on the bright side. Mr Chirac, one argument went, had managed to get out of a politically difficult and domestically embarrassing meeting without having to cancel it himself. He had also fulfilled the most immediate of the Islamic terrorists' demands - not to hold the meeting - without being seen to give in to terrorism.

The bright side, however, was mostly obscured by a wave of French political and media criticism of what was almost universally described as a diplomatic fiasco of the first order. One of the more polite comments, from a former diplomat, was that the meeting had been "poorly arranged".

As critics saw it, Mr Chirac - and French diplomacy - had suffered a multiple setback. First, there was the questionable principle of holding the meeting at all, especially at the beginning of the Algerian election campaign; second, there was the clumsy way in which such a controversial encounter had been announced by Mr Chirac in Madrid, without any explanation; third, there was Mr Chirac's decision to persist with the meeting, piling on the justifications.

Finally, just when one argument - that Mr Chirac was going to give Mr Zeroual some firm advice about the desirability of holding a free and fair election - was gaining acceptance in France, the Algerians turned the tables and called the meeting off, making Mr Chirac look weak, and his diplomatic team ineffectual. The Algerian spokesman even accused France of initiating the meeting, back in July, something immediately denied by Mr de Charette.

While Mr Chirac is now free of any charge of favouring Mr Zeroual's candidacy, he has undoubtedly stored up trouble for the future. In the likely event that Islamic terrorism in France persists and that Mr Zeroual is re-elected, with a populist anti-French strand now added to his platform, Mr Chirac will have to deal with a new layer of bitterness in Franco-Algerian relations and one for which he bears the direct blame.

One French commentator yesterday suggested that the bad-tempered breach with Mr Zeroual showed that France's Gaullist policy of trying to call the tune in former African colonies after independence was now unsustainable. The age of Jacques Foccart, General de Gaulle's head of Africa policy who accompanied Mr Chirac on his visits to North Africa earlier this year and embodies the old Gaullist ways, said the daily Infomatin, could finally be over.