Posted Saturday, December 22, 2001

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No prizes for spotting the adjective omitted by the prudish New York Times from the French ambassador's remark. For the full flavour of his insult, see other versions.

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December 22, 2001


Embassy Row Scandal Consumes Fleet Street



LONDON, Dec. 21 -- London's chattering classes are chewing over a drawing room scandal called, in a rare instance of English gentry venturing a phrase in a foreign tongue, "l'affaire Bernard."

It is a melodrama with a rich cast of characters. There is a press baron, a lord, a silken diplomat, a high- society writer, one of the capital's most vivacious hostesses and the requisite figure for any English farce -- a Continental caught unawares.

BernardTo the delight of the British press, which has covered the matter in voluptuous detail, this last role was taken up by the French ambassador (right).

The incident centers on a vulgar and derogatory remark about Israel uttered last week in the normally protective privacy of one of London's finest salons, the spacious Kensington home of the publisher Conrad M. Black, 57, a new member of the House of Lords, and Lady Black, 61.

One hundred of London's grandest were gathered for a party for Boris Johnson, 37, a first-term Conservative member of Parliament who is a columnist for one of Mr. Black's publications, The Daily Telegraph, and editor of another, The Spectator magazine.

Lady Black, who writes for her husband's newspaper under her maiden name, Barbara Amiel, began her column Monday with a titillatingly candid report on the evening.

"Recently, the ambassador of a major E.U. country politely told a gathering at my home that the current troubles in the world were all because of" Israel, she wrote, reporting that he used a vulgar term in describing the country. " 'Why,' he asked, 'should the world be in danger of World War III because of these people?' "

She didn't identify the envoy further, but she didn't have to. The Times of London, always eager to out its principal rival, supplied the name Tuesday. It was Daniel Bernard, 60, a close friend of French President Jacques Chirac, ambassador to the Court of St. James since 1998, and before that, his country's permanent representative to the United Nations.

Lady Black devoted her column to arguing that anti-Semitic remarks were becoming all too fashionable in London parlors, and Mr. Bernard was not the only notable in her sights.

"At a private lunch last month," she wrote, "the hostess -- doyenne of London's political salon scene -- made a remark to the effect that she couldn't stand Jews and everything happening to them was their own fault. When this was greeted with shocked silence, she chided her guests on what she assumed was their hypocrisy. 'Oh, come on,' she said, 'you all feel like that.' "

Once again no name was used, but the media figured the reference was to Carla Powell, 56, the Italian-born wife of Charles Powell, a former adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and now a member of the House of Lords. Lady Powell wrote a letter to The Telegraph complaining that she had been "generally identified" as the ill-spoken socialite.

"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," she wrote.

Mr. Bernard, speaking through a spokesman, did not dispute the actual quotation about Israel nor seek to excuse it, but he complained about the lack of context and the manner in which it emerged.

"He does not deny the remarks, he just says first of all what he said was distorted," said Yves Charpentier, press counselor to the French Embassy. "Secondly, what he said was in a private dinner among friends and was not supposed to be put in the press the next day. He is absolutely surprised, to say the least, with the way this has been handled."

AmielMr. Charpentier said that the point the ambassador was seeking to make was that the events in a country no bigger than three French counties could have such worldwide implications. He insisted Mr. Bernard had no feelings against Israel or Jews and added, "The ambassador has no intention whatsoever of apologizing, simply because he sees no reason to do so."

The French press came to their man's rescue Thursday, with Le Monde saying on its front page that he had become "the latest victim of the indiscreet Lady Black" a woman its London correspondent Marc Roche described as "deceivingly alluring with her fine facial features, doe eyes and proud bearing."

Le Monde, as far to the left as The Daily Telegraph is to the right, noted that the offending article appeared in a paper it said was reactionary, paranoid, notoriously error-filled and unceasingly preachy about the sanctity of private comment. "Even in a country where the tabloids are king and journalists are voyeurs, this whole proceeding is shocking," Mr. Roche wrote.

The Israeli government and most Jewish organizations gave the dispute a wide berth, but the parliamentary group "Labor Friends of Israel" observed, "These comments are eerily familiar from the French."

Lord Black, a Canadian who renounced his citizenship this fall so he could become a member of the House of Lords, is the chairman of Hollinger International, which owns The Chicago Sun-Times as well as papers in Britain and Canada. He announced last month that he planned to open a new newspaper in New York, The New York Sun, early next year. His publications, which also include The Jerusalem Post, take a very conservative line, and he and his wife are outspoken champions of Israel.

Lady Black was born in England and moved to Canada as a girl, later winning a scholarship to the University of Toronto and eventually rising to the editorship of of the Toronto Sun.

The dispute in fashionable West London and along embassy row, and the cross-channel hostilities it has caused, will not die out soon if the British press can help it. "Fortunately for fans of intrigue everywhere," The Guardian said at week's end, "the affair has plenty of life in it yet."




Related items on thiswebsite:

The society queen, the ambassador and the careless whispers that stunned salon set
Envoy Can't Remember Insult
Wall Street Journal reports on the furor
The above news item is reproduced without editing other than typographical
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