PARIS (Reuters) - French, it is said, is the language of love.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flaunted his fluency in the language on Saturday to deliver something of a love letter to France, one of the few world powers that seems likely to join the United States in any military action against Syria.
Following the British parliament’s August 29 vote to reject any British use of force against Syria, which the United States accuses of gassing its own people with sarin, France has made no secret of its desire to play Washington’s supporting partner.
Speaking in French for eight minutes beneath the gold-painted cherubs of one of the Quai d’Orsay’s elegant salons, Kerry traced the history of U.S.-French relations beginning from the American Revolution, while glossing over their many tiffs.
“When he visited General de Gaulle in Paris more than 50 years ago, President Kennedy said, and I quote, ‘The relationship between France and the United States is crucially important for the preservation of liberty in the whole world,’” Kerry said.
“Today, faced with the brutal chemical weapons attacks in Syria, that relationship evoked by President Kennedy is more crucial than ever,” he added.
Not to be outdone, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius broke a taboo by speaking in English at a news conference in the Foreign Ministry’s elegant building on the banks of the Seine, where he once chided a reporter, “Here, sir, we speak French.”
While Kerry’s performance might be seen as flattering a French government that is one of the few to back U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for air strikes to deter Syria from using chemical arms, it may help convince a skeptical French public.
An IFOP poll published on Saturday showed 68 percent of French were against an intervention in Syria.
France took no part in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which it strongly opposed, but joined the United States, Britain and others in a military intervention that helped oust Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Kerry, who learned French as a boy, found his fluency a liability during his 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, feeding an image of the Democrat as a wealthy elitist that his Republican opponent, then-President George W. Bush, exploited.
As a diplomat, however, it is an asset, allowing him to speak directly to the French about their unhappy history with chemical warfare during World War One as one reason why the French government is sensitive to its alleged use in Syria.
“Some of the very first lethal chemical weapons attacks happened here, on French soil, during the First World War and a large number of these victims of these deadly, indiscriminate weapons were young French soldiers, just 19 or 20 years old,” he said.
Fabius, an experienced politician best known for having been France’s youngest prime minister, showed a rare moment of intensity and outrage about an August 21 attack in Syria in which the Syrian government is accused of using sarin gas.
Syria, embroiled in a 2-1/2-year-old civil war in which more than 100,000 are believed to have died, denies that.
“You have to look at the images of these children in rows with the shrouds over them, not an injury, not a drop of blood? And they are there and they are sleeping forever,” Fabius said, visibly shaken.
“There’s a dictator who did it and is ready to start again,” he said gesticulating with his fists. “This concerns us, too. You can’t say that globalization is everywhere except for terrorism and chemical weapons.”
As if to underscore their countries’ ties, Kerry and Fabius went for a walk outside the Foreign Ministry on a pleasant Paris evening, where, later, the sky to the west was lit with gold and to the east by a rainbow.
“France and the United States stand shoulder to shoulder. Some ask why? Just look at history. Each time that the cause is just, France and the United States stand together,” Fabius said.
“We are exceedingly grateful to have France by our side,” said Kerry.
Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Peter Cooney