Old Europe remark ruffles French leaders

PARIS — French leaders have been howling ever since U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld described France and Germany on Wednesday as part of the “old Europe.”

“If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the center of gravity is shifting to the east and there are a lot of new members,” Rumsfeld said.

The Germans reacted coolly to Rumsfeld’s comments, made to a group of foreign journalists in Washington after a show of Franco-German solidarity against an early Iraq war. But his remark infuriated the French, who spent a good part of Thursday accusing the sharp-tongued secretary of indiscretion, tone-deafness, supporting terrorism and even criminality.

The politicians’ umbrage reveals more than French national pride. It reflects widespread anger, analysts say, and deep, fast-growing opposition to a U.S.-led war against Iraq. The French are also determined to remain at the center of any decision to go to war.

“The `old Europe’ still has some spring, and is capable of bouncing back,” Economics Minister Francis Mer told the French television station LCI. Mer said he was “deeply vexed” by Rumsfeld’s comment.

Jack Lang, who has served as France’s minister of both culture and education, called Rumsfeld’s remark “irresponsible, dangerous and criminal.”

Martine Aubry, mayor of Lille and a former labor minister, criticized the “arrogance of the U.S. that keeps wanting to govern the world by themselves with fewer and fewer rules.”

The French public remains firmly against military action, even with a United Nations mandate. Three-quarters of French polled Jan. 17 by the CSA agency for the liberal newspaper L’Humanite said France should veto any U.N. Security Council resolution approving the use of force against Saddam Hussein. French opposition to military action is registering above 80 percent.

©2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.