US Embassy quashes report of Harriman quitting Paris

The United States embassy in Paris has "categorically denied" that the ambassador, the British-born aristocrat, Pamela Harriman, is resigning her post or leaving France. The denial follows a series of reports that Ms Harriman, whose arrival in Paris as an appointee of President Clinton raised eyebrows in diplomatic circles, was standing down or had already left France.

To support its denial, the US Embassy took the unusual step of disseminating an internal memo, sent to all embassy staff when the first reports of her supposed resignation appeared. It says, in capital letters: "The Embassy of the United States in France would like to clarify that Ambassador Harriman is still in Paris and will remain at her post indefinitely. The duration of the mission for all American ambassadors is at the pleasure of the president of the United States."

While there can be no doubt that Ms Harriman is in Paris, has not resigned, and apparently has no intention of leaving before the end of Mr Clinton's first term as president, the wide currency given to reports of her resignation raise questions about the degree of support the 76-year-old ambassador enjoys in Washington, and specifically at the State Department. When it was pointed out that the initial reports of her departure came from Washington, a US embassy source in Paris said: "Washington is a hive of speculation and rumour and Ambassador Harriman has enemies like everyone else."

One of the first Paris reports of Ms Harriman's departure appeared in last week's Paris Match magazine, which showed a picture of Ms Harriman receiving an award from the French culture minister under the heading, "Au revoir Madame l'ambassadeur". The caption said that Ms Harriman had left Paris on 17 April and had received the award "to remind her of the city she so loves".

This week's edition carries a grovelling apology, headed: "Pardon, Madame l'ambassadeur." It says: "The ambassador wishes to clarify that she is still at her post in Paris and does not envisage leaving before the end of Bill Clinton's presidency next January. We present our apologies for the erroneous report".

The Washington Post article which fuelled US reports of her imminent departure, quoted Ms Harriman as saying that she would be "ready to go home" after the autumn presidential elections.

She said her time in Paris had been "fascinating, but I've had enough", and she referred to long working days, the "limit to how long you can live a public life" and the difficulties of being single, and a woman in an ambassadorial post: "Many things I do would never be asked of a male ambassador".

The general tone of her remarks, and the fact that she was quoted as referring to the elections, rather than to the end of Mr Clinton's term, or to his possible re-election, permitted her remarks to be interpreted as meaning that she was leaving sooner rather than later.

Whatever the origin of the story, the Paris embassy's determination to scotch the story indicates it has been embarrassed and that Ms Harriman's position as ambassador has been undermined.

The affair comes at a time when the US particularly needs a strong presence in Paris. Relations are going through an awkward phase, with differences in emphasis, if not outright rivalry, on Middle East policy, a year-old dispute about alleged CIA activities in France rumbling on, and a report in the French media yesterday, alleging that a US spy plane had overflown sensitive military installations earlier this year.

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