Bush keeps his French hosts laughing with a stand-up show


FRANCE: French commentators often accuse the US President of being unsophisticated. President Bush confirmed that judgment during his first official visit to Paris yesterday.

At a press conference with President Jacques Chirac ("my friend Jock"), flanked by their foreign ministers and national security advisers, Mr Bush behaved more like a stand-up comic than the most powerful man in the world.

Responding to a question about the effect of a possible war between Pakistan and India on US troops in the region, Mr Bush said: "Um. I'm jet-lagged. What's the first couple of questions?"

Would a war endanger the lives of US servicemen? "I certainly hope not," Mr Bush quipped.

A White House correspondent repeated the other question which Mr Bush had forgotten, about "the first Memorial Day since 9/11".

"Uh, Memorial Day. Thanks," Mr Bush said. "That's what happens when you're over 55."

Several hundred people in the Salle des Feteés burst into laughter.

They laughed too when Mr Bush told them that he was "really looking forward to dinner" with Mr Chirac because "he's always saying the food here is fantastic." Asked whether President Vladimir Putin had heeded US concerns about Russia's sale of a nuclear power plant to Iran, Mr Bush said the Russian leader "understands an Iran with a capability to launch a missile is dangerous for him and his country".

Mr Putin had assured him that the nuclear plant would not enable Iran to produce nuclear weapons, and would be subject to international inspection.

"We're thinking about what he told us," Mr Bush said twice.

Newspaper reports in recent days said Mr Bush may have set aside plans to invade Iraq because the US was not prepared militarily, but might nonetheless send commandos in an attempt to overthrow President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

"The stated policy of my government is that we have a regime change," Mr Bush said.

"I told President Chirac I have no war plans on my desk. We do view Saddam Hussein as a serious, significant threat to stability, peace."

Nor would the US leader say whether he would allow the Palestinian President, Mr Yasser Arafat, to participate in a Middle East peace conference. Last week, Mr Bush said Mr Arafat never had his respect. "In terms of meetings and conferences, our view is that we need to develop a strategy . . . and then the secretary [of state] will be convening a ministerial conference some time this summer . . . that progress will determine how many conferences are necessary until we eventually get to hopefully the end of the process."

Ten days ago in Madrid, referring to Mr Bush's intention to give US farmers an extra $173.5 billion over the next decade, Mr Chirac said that he and other EU leaders "strongly regret this unlaterialism, which is totally contrary to a balanced, serene vision of the world".

Both presidents yesterday acknowledged "different points of view" on trade, but stressed that they were "on the same wavelength" in the "war on terrorism".

The two leaders also minimised the importance of demonstrations against Mr Bush's visit by groups opposing globalisation and the death penalty in the US.

One group hung 153 cardboard bodies from a Paris bridge, symbolising the number of people Mr Bush has allowed to be executed.

The two presidents and their wives will travel to Normandy today to commemorate the landing of US troops during the second World War.