April 21, 2009 / 10:27 AM / 10 years ago

France criticizes U.S. for shunning U.N. racism talks

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner criticized the United States Tuesday for boycotting a United Nations conference where Iran’s president launched a verbal attack on Israel.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gestures during a news conference after his address to the Durban Review Conference on racism at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva April 20, 2009. United Nations officials sought on Monday to salvage a U.N. racism conference that Washington and its major allies are boycotting over concerns that it will be used as a platform for attacks against Israel. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

France, which has strong diplomatic and business ties with the Middle East, had joined a walk-out of delegates in Geneva after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called Israel cruel and racist in a speech Monday, but then returned to the meeting.

Kouchner said it was wrong of the United States to shun the conference after announcing it was open for negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

“It’s paradoxical — they don’t want to listen to Iran in Geneva but they are ready to talk to them,” Kouchner told French radio Europe 1. “More than a paradox, that could really be a mistake.”

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy has worked hard to mend ties with the United States after a rift over the war in Iraq, and was eager to show off his good relations with U.S. President Barack Obama at this month’s NATO summit in Strasbourg.

But France has also been keen to maintain close relations with Arab governments, who have supported the conference.

Kouchner said France would continue to work on the draft text prepared for the Geneva meeting and expected a result later Tuesday, adding that the declaration would condemn anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

“It will be a defeat for Ahmadinejad because there will be, I hope by tonight, this declaration. But the politics of the empty chair is easy. You leave and you shout at the others,” Kouchner said.

The United States, Canada, Australia and a number of European governments stayed away from the conference on fears it would be hijacked by critics of Israel.

Ahmadinejad has in the past cast doubt on the Nazi Holocaust, and in his speech Monday accused Israel of establishing a “cruel and racist regime.”

“Following World War Two they resorted to military aggressions to make an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering,” Ahmadinejad told the conference, on the day that Jewish communities commemorate the Holocaust.

Reporting by Laure Bretton and Sophie Hardach

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