January 24, 2003

Row Over French Invitation to Mugabe

Despite fury among British and European parliamentarians over France's invitation to President Robert Mugabe to visit Paris next month, reports suggest Britain has done a deal with President Jacques Chirac's government that will see London refrain from opposing the visit in return for a French agreement to renew sanctions.

Mugabe has been invited by Chirac to attend the Franco-African summit which he has been to in previous years. Foreign ministers from the European Union are due to discuss on Monday, January 27, at their general affairs council meeting what MPs on both sides of the English Channel are calling the most serious breach of the sanctions regime yet. But Paris argues the visit falls within international conventions of the sort that enabled Mugabe to attend meetings in New York and Rome last year.

The visit has already stirred an uproar in European capitals where politicians who support targeted travel restrictions on Mugabe and his immediate associates are railing against Chirac for extending the invitation to Zimbabwe's rogue leader.

While British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been under pressure to ensure Mugabe does not travel to France, diplomatic sources say Blair has already struck a deal with Chirac not to oppose Mugabe's visit to France on condition France backs the renewal of EU sanctions which expire on February 18.

It is also believed London has entered a similar deal with Portugal for Mugabe to travel to Lisbon for the EU/Africa summit running from April 3 to 5. French and Portuguese officials refused to comment yesterday. France simply issued a statement confirming the invitation.

Unless the sanctions are renewed on Monday or before February 18, Mugabe could travel to France without the need for a waiver of the travel restrictions because the meeting comes a day after the expiry of the travel ban.

Sources said Blair was obliged to enter into the deal with Chirac after it emerged that some EU countries including Italy, Portugal and Greece, were unwilling to support the resumption of sanctions claiming they were not working. Blair apparently also agreed to the deal to save an Anglo-French summit scheduled for early next month. The meeting was cancelled last year after Blair and Chirac clashed over agricultural reform policy.

Zimbabwe has been able to take advantage of the diplomatic gulf resulting from world focus on events in Iraq and North Korea. France, which together with Belgium were the last EU members to roll out the red carpet for Mugabe in early 2001, was said to be taking advantage of loopholes in the EU visa regime which allow travel restrictions to be waived for United Nations conferences and other summits dealing with issues such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law. "They are claiming that the Paris summit will also discuss the Zimbabwe crisis and issues to do with democracy, human rights and the rule of law," a diplomatic source said. "Of course, this is a pretext but there is also the traditional British/French rivalry involved." While Blair told the House of Commons on Wednesday that Mugabe's trip to Paris was up for discussion at the EU meeting on Monday, his opposition rivals slammed him for allowing Chirac to cosy up to Mugabe.

Conservative Party foreign affairs spokesman Michael Ancram said Chirac's decision to accommodate Mugabe was "disgusting". International Development mi-nister Clare Short said it was "disgraceful". British Conservative MEP Geoffrey van Orden also condemned Chirac's move. He wrote a protest letter to British Foreign secretary Jack Straw and EU officials urging them not to support France's decision.

Zimbabwean opposition MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai also blasted France and Portugal. "It's like inviting Saddam Hussein to a G8 meeting," he said. "Whilst we appreciate the significance attached to the February Franco-African summit and the April Lisbon EU/Africa summit, we are convinced that efforts to rehabilitate an openly illegitimate and murderous regime can only be counter-productive in the long run," he said. "Any avenue granted to Mugabe to attend international meetings at which he is treated as a statesman and an equal is an affront to the feelings of the people of Zimbabwe." Tsvangirai said it was sad France and Portugal, which supported Rhodesian premier Ian Smith's regime, were placing themselves on the wrong side of history again. "It is a tragedy that France and Portugal are now repeating the same mistake," he said. (Zimbabwe Independent, Harare)

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