The French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, described as "uncalled for" comments made by Mr Rifkind in a press conference last Wednesday. Mr de Charette suggested that Britain was jealous of France's rediscovered prestige in the region.
The French reaction is somewhat puzzling. The Foreign Secretary refrained from directly criticising President Chirac's actions and comments in the Middle East, although he was invited to do so by British and Arab journalists on several occasions. However, Mr Rifkind did say that the diplomacy of individual countries had their own "national cultural characteristics". That has been interpreted in Paris as a slight.
In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche, Mr de Charette praised the "great success" of Mr Chirac's tour. Then, replying to a question about apparent dissent between France and its European partners on the peace process, he said: "Statements by Mr Rifkind seemed to me particularly uncalled for. Without doubt, they stem from French-British rivalry of long standing."
The row illustrates the diverging views of Paris and London on the proper role for the EU in the Middle East at a time when the US-led peace process appears to be running into the sand. Mr Rifkind said last week that he did not rule out increased EU involvement but suggested that that should be a secondary role, seeking to assist the existing peace process, not to replace it or undermine it. Mr Chirac made it clear last week that he believes the EU should be a player in its own right.
In yesterday's interview, Mr de Charette appeared to claim a historic duty for France to articulate Europe's policy in the region. "No one can dispute France's special role in the Middle East," he said, "where she has had a presence for centuries. Other Mediterranean countries - Italy, Spain and Greece - have the same attitude." Mr de Charette insisted that as the prime contributor of aid, Europe had the right to a role in the region.
He is to report on the results of Mr Chirac's tour to today's meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg. Mr Rifkind will not be present. He is with the Queen in Thailand and visits Israel and the Gulf later in the week.Reuse content