by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
Prof. Bowen's introduction: The news items below report on an incident involving a public quarrel between British journalist Barbara Amiel and the French Ambassador to the U.K., Daniel Bernard, in the late Fall of 2001. The original article by Barbara Amiel herself unfortunately is not available online; it was published in the Daily Telegraph. However, these news and gossip column accounts about the incident convey the texture of the incident, and the broader topic (i.e., anti-Semitism in Britain) about which she wrote. It is of interest that that topic was less of concern to some than was the fact that Amiel had gone public with the "private" dinner conversation of the Ambassador. I have emphasized certain passages below:
Geoffrey Levy, in the Daily Mail (London: December 20, 2001):
IT WAS not quite World War III that was exploding over diplomatic and society London yesterday, but it was close. And it all began at a party.
The champagne was pink, the specially written songs performed by the satrical duo Kit and the Widow hilarious. Lifesize cardboard cutouts of the Falstaffian Boris Johnson, MP for Henley, in a variety of postures, were everywhere.
Press baron Lord (Conrad) Black, boss of the Daily Telegraph, and his wife, the journalist Barbara Amiel, were celebrating Johnson's rising star (he also edits The Spectator, owned by Black) at their elegant Kensington home.
It was a lavish but fairly informal affair, and none of the 100 guests looked more relaxed than the French ambassador, diminutive Daniel Bernard.
Too relaxed, perhaps. As the teetotal M. Bernard and Canadian-born Conrad carried their buffet food together to one of the many dining tables set up in the ballroom-sized drawing room, they were already deep in conversation.
It was a 45-minute conversation that would lead to crisis. In an article in her husband's newspaper on Monday about rising anti-Semitism, Ms Amiel, a Jewess and a passionate Zionist, quoted 'the ambassador of a major EU country' who had been a guest at their home as saying the world was in danger of World War III because of 'that shitty little country, Israel'.
YESTERDAY, identified as the man who spoke those alleged words, the impeccable career of 60-year-old M. Bernard was in the balance, and he glumly confided to diplomatic friends: 'Paris will take any decision about my future.' The reported comment wasn't so much a misquote as a case of his 'grasp of the English language letting me down', he told colleagues as he sought to explain that he was merely attempting to make the point that the problems of one country no bigger than two French departements had such major worldwide repercussions.
You would imagine that the French ambassador would have been briefed about the zealous support that Israel receives from Ms Amiel and the Catholic Lord Black before going to a party there.
But he was not the only friend to be fingered, though not named, by the 61-year-old Barbara Amiel. The same article mentioned a society hostess, 'the doyenne of London's political social scene', who, at a lunch (a different occasion) had made a remark about not being able to stand Jews and how everything that was happening to them was their own fault.
Greeted by a shocked silence, the hostess had continued: 'Oh come on, you all feel like that.' Yesterday, one of London's most prominent hostesses, Carla Powell, the flamboyant Italian wife of Margaret Thatcher's former foreign policy advisor Lord Powell, wrote to the Telegraph complaining that she had been ' generally identified' as the hostess in Amiel's article.
'Let me say that I have never said anything remotely like the words attributed to the "hostess" and that they do not, by any stretch of the imagination, represent my views,' wrote Lady Powell.
She added she was strengthened in her denial by what was being said about an ambassador identified as being that from France. 'I am sure that he is quite incapable of making any such remark,' she wrote.
LADY Powell's concern at being labelled anti-Semitic is understandable. Her urbane husband Charles has considerable business interests as a senior figure in tycoon Wafic Said's empire. Mr Said harks from Syria, no lover of Israel.
In recent times Lord Powell has been critical of Israel in relation to its West Bank policy, and accused of taking a pro-Palestinian stance, though he insists his criticisms are as a friend.
'When I was at the Foreign Office they used to say I was its only Zionist,' he complained to a friend yesterday. 'And Said is only a small part of my work.' It was Lord Powell, of course, who is reported to have fixed Tony Blair's recent meeting with Syria's dictator President Assad.
Lady Black's point in her article was that since September 11 it had become 'respectable' at London dinner tables to be openly anti-Semitic. Most Jews have certainly found that frustration and irritation over recent events in the Middle East and a rise in the support for Palestinian aspirations are beginning to blur the line between criticism of Israel and overt anti-Semitism.
It is a topic of which Lord Black, who owns the Jerusalem Post, and his wife never tire.
'Neither of them have much small talk,' says a friend. 'Conrad and Babs like serious discussions, and the serious discussion they like most is about Israel. They defend Israel ferociously.' Even in the relaxed ambiance of their own home, with satirical verses having been written about Boris Johnson and miniature cardboard images of him in a Santa hat on every dining table, Conrad Black's talk would have been serious. And as with every couple giving a party, the bones would have been picked over with his wife Barbara later.
But should it have gone into print?
Lady Black didn't name him, it is true, but with a guest list of 100 - largely media but including Earl Spencer with his new wife Pidge just before their wedding - the intelligent guesswork was soon going to pinpoint M.
Bernard, the only ambassador present.
Too many drinks might have been an excuse, but the ambassador doesn't drink, for health reasons. In Paris he is known as a cautious mandarin who 'weighs every word carefully before he speaks it. I have known him for 12 years and to me it's impossible that he used such words,' said Jacques Dulpouich, London correspondent of the French daily Le Figaro.
PRESUMABLY, you have to blame the relaxed atmosphere of a party in which Boris Johnson was lampooned in word and song for telling Black that if he edited the Spectator he would not seek a parliamentary seat, and for telling the voters of Henley that if they elected him he would give up the editorship of the Spectator. He now does both.
M. Bernard was highly amused by what was going on. He had no idea that the hostess was going to threaten his career by bursting into print, and yesterday he told diplomatic friends that he 'very much regretted that dining table remarks at a private dinner could have been publicised.' But he didn't deny it.
Lady Powell was trying to laugh it off, saying that all that mattered was that the picture of her which the Telegraph put on its front page to trail her brief letter of denial inside 'was quite a good one'.
But behind the familiar joviality, she was a worried woman. There is a social set in London that is important to her. This is the powerful and intellectually significant Jewish set which usually blends and merges with the titled, the aristocracy and the influential with ease.
Some may have thought that it was at her request that attention was drawn to her letter by the picture, but she saw it very differently-It think it was mischievous and at my expense - putting it there to make sure as many people as possible saw my name linked with those terrible words,' she said.
'But would I ever really say such things? I have been married to my husband since I was 19 and he 21, and in most of those 40 years he's been linked to the diplomatic service. It is like military service - you do not make mistakes.
'In those years I have virtually become a diplomat myself. Those were not my words. I would never dream of making a remark like that.' Privately, she is astonished that Lady Black used a conversation from a private party in her own home for the basis of a newspaper article. 'I have been a friend of Barbara for years and, so far as I am concerned, we are still friends,' she told a close friend yesterday.
'I admire her because she is a bright woman who has come up in the world and made much of herself and is now married to a powerful man - her fourth marriage, I think.
'But certain rules apply when you have guests, rules that you have to keep if you want to continue to have guests, and she hasn't kept them. How many friends will accept her invitations if they think that everything they are saying is being repeated so it can be written up in the newspaper?
'She and I are from totally different schools.
As far as I am concerned, being a hostess means doing to others what what you would want them to do to you.' Undoubtedly, attacking Lady Black for breaking the conventions of the party host was a useful diversion of fire over the disgraceful anti-Semitic views expressed, whoever spoke them.
Lady Powell seeks to point up their differences, but mutual friends say the irony is that the two are very alike - anxious to be courted by the powerful and the famous, and eager to demonstrate social sophistication.
Both dress well and each looks at least a decade younger than their years.
The real divide between the two is that Lady Powell enjoys her reputation as an extrovert socialite whereas Lady Black - the first woman editor of the Toronto Sun - likes to be seen as a thinker.
Lady Powell's role as a society hostess has been in retreat as she has been spending time refurbishing a villa she and her husband have bought near Rome.
During this time Conrad Black gave up his Canadian citizenship after a furious row with the Canadian Prime Minister to accept the peerage given him at the request of former Tory leader William Hague.
Carla's friends say she is particularly hurt by the current episode 'because of the way she and Charles looked after Conrad and Babs when they were first in London'.
The last time the two couples were together was last Thursday at the East India Club for drinks to celebrate the golden wedding of Denis and Margaret Thatcher.
Meanwhile, there were only losers, and no winners yesterday, over the affair. Ambassador Bernard wondered if his career was in shreds, Lady Powell hoped the world would not hold her an anti-Semite, and Lady Black was left wondering how many invitations to the Blacks' future soirees would be declined.
As for the Middle East crisis, nothing had changed.
In the London Times Andrew Pierce wrote "Diplomatic gaffe puts Tory salon out of joint" on December 19, 2001:
The evening began as a party to honour a rising star of publishing and the Tory party. But by the time the last guest had left a diplomatic gaffe had been committed that threatens the career of France's Ambassador to London.
Daniel Bernard was said to have made crude anti-Semitic remarks at the buffet party at the end of last week for Boris Johnson, Editor of The Spectator and successor to Michael Heseltine as Tory MP for Henley. Worse still, the ambassador made the alleged comments in private to his host, Lord Black of Crossharbour, proprietor of The Daily Telegraph, whom he regarded as a close friend, at Lord Black's home in Kensington.
Unfortunately for M Bernard the conversation was conveyed by Lord Black to his journalist wife, Barbara Amiel, who hosted the "Boris Johnson Phenomenon" evening. She referred to the remark in her Daily Telegraph column. Ms Amiel was not at the table when the fateful conversation took place.
Ms Amiel wrote that the "ambassador of a major EU country told me" that the international security crisis had been triggered by "that shitty little country Israel". The ambassador, according to Ms Amiel, added: "Why should we be in danger of World War Three because of these people?" Ms Amiel, to protect the identity of her guest, did not name the ambassador.
There was no need to. Within 24 hours he had been identified as M Bernard, a man on close terms with President Chirac. Yesterday he was distraught about the breach of trust at a party where he thought he was among friends. The ensuing diplomatic fallout has led to calls from senior figures in the Jewish community in Britain for M Bernard to step down.
Yves Charpentier, press secretary at the French Embassy, confirmed that the ambassador to whom Ms Amiel had referred was M Bernard, who is a Roman Catholic.
M Charpentier said: "The ambassador regarded it as a private dinner with friends. He was surprised to have his remarks reported in this way. He discussed a number of topics, including the Israeli and Palestinian conflict."
Challenged on whether he used the phrase "that shitty little country Israel", M Charpentier said: "The ambassador does not remember if he used those words.
"The ambassador said we were facing a geographically limited problem, a small area, which has disproportionately huge consequences for world peace. He is not anti-Semitic or anti-Israel."
The British Board of Deputies, representing the Jewish community in Britain, expressed concern at the ambassador's apparent criticism. A spokesman said: "These remarks do not constitute the official view of the French Embassy as they were said in a personal capacity. But it does cause grave concern if that is the ambassador's personal opinion, particularly as the country he is talking about is one his Government claims is our staunch friend."
M Charpentier said: "We are sending a Christmas card to them (Lord and Lady Black) today." Asked if the ambassador would return for dinner, he added: "That depends whether they invite him."
Otherwise known as: Lady Black Age: 61, but looks 51. Her friend Miriam Gross says: "I feel quite frumpy next to her" Status: married in 1992 to fourth husband Lord Black of Crossharbour who owns the Hollinger publishing group, which includes The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph, for which she writes Famous saying: "I do not regard my husband's money as my own" Day job: journalist Night job: chatelaine of influential political salon Other job: director of The Spectator Homes: divides her time between New York, Toronto, Palm Beach and a stucco "residence" with eight staff in Kensington Friends of: Baroness Thatcher, Lord Powell of Bayswater, former foreign policy adviser to Lady Thatcher and John Major, Duke of Marlborough, Sir Elton John Need to know: Lady Black was born in Watford during the Blitz while her grandfather was saving hundreds of people from German bombs -the town now boasts an Amiel Street Education: moved to Canada after her parents' divorce. A scholarship to the University of Toronto was followed by a career in journalism, which once saw her imprisoned in Mozambique for the sake of a scoop Career highlights: first female editor of The Toronto Sun. She returned to Britain in the 1980s and became known as the Iron Lady of Wapping because of her attacks on the liberal establishment.
Otherwise known as: the eyes and ears in London of President Chirac Age: 60 Status: married, but his wife Monique, whom he married in 1964, prefers to stay at their home in Paris. They have two sons and one daughter. Famous sayings (allegedly): "That shitty little country Israel" and "Hunting is a very important issue in France, but not in the same class-ridden way it is in this country. We have a different attitude. Yes, it used to be the privilege of the nobility, but that all ended with the revolution. After that it became the right of peasants to hunt, shoot, whatever."
Homes: official residence in London and a home in Paris. Friends of: Lord Black of Crossharbour and Barbara Amiel. For now. Need to know: grew up in Lyons at a time when France's second city became one of the first to set up a twinning arrangement with an opposite number in Britain. Which is how, as a schoolboy, he came to Birmingham on an exchange, and discovered cricket, which he follows avidly Education: studied English at the University of Lyons Career highlights: worked in the upper echelons of public service leading to an ambassadorial posting to The Netherlands in 1993. France's representative at the United Nations in 1995, before he arrived in London in September 1998...
Sholto Byrnes, in the Independent (London: January 3, 2002), treated the story lightly:
A diplomatic incident which threatened to make the ambassador's receptions noted for their strong language rather than their excellent chocolates has been averted. Daniel Bernard, the French ambassador, is holding his traditional New Year's party next week at his elegant residence near Kensington Palace. The question on the lips of those invited has been this: will Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel be going? Lord Black, proprietor of the Telegraph group, was on very friendly terms with Bernard, inviting him to a recent party he threw in honour of Boris Johnson. Unfortunately, relations were somewhat soured by Black's wife Amiel reporting in one of her husband's papers that Bernard had referred to Israel as a "shitty little country". The ambassador had thought he was among friends and that his remarks were private. Being a diplomat, it would not have been surprising if Bernard had tried to smooth it all over and asked the Blacks to his bash. Awkward small talk over the canapes is not on the agenda, however. Fortunately for all concerned, Lord and Lady Black are on the other side of the Atlantic, and his office tells me they are not expected back until the end of the month. Sante to that.
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