PARIS: Big gatherings can be complicated, but try seating 43 of the planet s very important people – some of whom bear longstanding grudges or have fought wars – at a giant table for a feel-good summit.
The French, masters at protocol, did it and pulled off a diplomatic feat Sunday that might have challenged the court of party-lover King Louis XIV.
Only a few faux pas slipped through during Sunday s summit, such as that Syrian President Bashar Assad reportedly left the table before Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke, or that Moroccan King Mohamed VI at the last minute sent his brother in his place. The hosts glossed over such missteps.
President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted that Assad was “very present, while Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, co-president of the summit, allowed for a possible exit “if Mr Assad has things to do outside the room.
As for the absence of the Moroccan monarch, well, he sent his royal brother, the French president said. “To say that Morocco wasn t present is curious, Sarkozy said when asked at a final news conference.
The summit was the launch pad for the Union for the Mediterranean, the brainchild of Sarkozy aimed at bridging the north-south divide between Europe and the poorer states on the sea s rim to bring peace and prosperity to the volatile region.
However, getting everyone to attend and maintaining a collegial atmosphere was a challenge. So prickly are some neighbors toward each other that details such as photographs and seating were critical.
There was no final photo of the gathering. While almost all leaders accepted the invitation, they simply couldn t pay the political price of immortalizing their presence.
As for seating, the French were clever. They chose a round table that diminishes chances of eye to eye contact, then seated guests alphabetically – but alternating on the left and right of Sarkozy and Mubarak.
Concretely, that meant that Israel, whose presence ruffled some Arab countries, sat between Greece and Italy and faced Hungary and Ireland.
Syria s leader Assad sat diagonally across the table from Israel – until Israeli officials said he left.
With the alphabet running down both sides, “It gave a result that is politically satisfying, said a ranking French official who briefed reporters before the summit on condition of anonymity, as per his office s rules.
Then there is touchy North Africa. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi blasted the whole project and didn t show up at all.
There were suspicions that the Moroccan king s absence was because Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika attended. Tension defines the ties between the two neighbors, both former French colonies and major allies of the West. Bouteflika took his time accepting the invitation, doing so just days before the summit.
Sarkozy was jubilant that the protocol worked out, saying: “there was no screaming at the table.