After bathing in the adoration of Europeans praising his leadership in slowing the U.S. rush to war in Iraq, French President Jacques Chirac was harshly criticized Thursday for welcoming Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to a summit France is holding for African leaders.
Mr. Chirac greeted the 78-year-old Mr. Mugabe with the coolest of handshakes Thursday at the start of a summit of 45 African heads of state and government leaders from 52 African states, and was to deliver a stern message at a one-on-one meeting later in the day, in sharp contrast to the warm embraces and kisses other arriving leaders got.
Yet even that welcome was too much for many, who accuse Mr. Mugabe of violently suppressing his political opponents, encouraging the illegal seizure of commercial farms and sending Zimbabwe's once prosperous economy to the brink of starvation.
The harshest criticism came from British newspapers, which called Mr. Chirac a worm and a pimp in editorials. The Sun tabloid published a special edition for distribution in Paris with the headline "Chirac est un ver" (Chirac is a worm) and a photo of the President's head superimposed on the body of a worm.
It was accompanied by a French-language editorial attacking Mr. Chirac for France's position on Iraq and accusing him of forgetting France's legacy to the United States for helping liberate it from the Nazis.
The Daily Mail said that Mr. Chirac had forgotten France's traditional role as defender of liberty and justice and become "a pimp to some of the world's worst regimes." But even the respected French daily Le Monde questioned the president's decision to roll out the welcome mat for Mr. Mugabe.
"The presence of Robert Mugabe at the 22nd Franco-African summit is an insult to the victims of his arbitrary rule in Zimbabwe," Le Monde said in an editorial, noting that Mr. Mugabe is the subject of sanctions from the Commonwealth, the United States and the European Union for his alleged abuse of human rights and despotic rule.
"I suppose the lunches and dinners will give these leaders an opportunity to drink to the health of populations that are being massacred," said Patrick Baudoin of the Federation of Human Rights Leagues, referring to abuses in participating countries such as Zimbabwe, Mauritania, Tunisia and Congo.
Alan Duncan, foreign-affairs spokesman for Britain's opposition Conservative Party, called Mr. Chirac's greeting of Mr. Mugabe "the grubbiest handshake of the year" and asked Mr. Chirac to think "how much blood is on the hand he just shook."
Mr. Chirac's invitation to Mr. Mugabe caused a diplomatic uproar in the EU, which imposed a travel ban on him and and on members of his inner circle a year ago. France threatened to block the renewal of the ban unless it was given a specific exemption allowing Mr. Mugabe to attend the summit, to which Britain reluctantly agreed.
France has said it believes in engaging leaders like Mr. Mugabe and complained that it was threatened with a boycott by at least a dozen other African leaders if the Zimbabwean President had not been on the guest list.
Mr. Chirac scored a bit of a political coup Thursday at the start of the two-day meeting by getting the leaders to back France's opposition to military action as a means of disarming Iraq. Among those signing the statement were Guinea, Cameroon and Angola, all of whom are non-permanent members of the Security Council and potential swing voters on a second resolution on Iraqi disarmament.