By Toby Harnden in Washington and Philip Delves Broughton
France launched a diplomatic counter-offensive against America yesterday, accusing the Bush administration of orchestrating a vengeful plot to discredit President Jacques Chirac's government.
In a letter delivered to senior government officials and members of Congress, Jean-David Levitte, the French ambassador to Washington, claimed that France was the victim of an "organised campaign of disinformation" and demanded that it must cease.
Attached to the letter was a two-page list of press reports over the past nine months that the French insist were fabrications based on deliberate leaks from American officials.
"We're fed up with all these allegations, which have been denied over and over yet are still being used by some media," a spokesman for the French embassy said. "This has to stop. That letter will show examples of cases where obviously there was a very twisted idea behind those leaks." The letter marks a new low in US-French relations, which plummeted after M Chirac's declaration in March that, under any circumstances, he would veto any additional United Nations resolution on Iraq.
Among the offending articles were a report in The Washington Post last November quoting an "intelligence source" that France was one of four nations thought to possess smallpox.
The final straw came last week when The Washington Times said France had helped Iraqi leaders to escape through Syria by giving them passports.
Bush administration officials offered only lukewarm denials. Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, said: "France has historically had a very close relationship with Iraq. My understanding is that it continued right up until the outbreak of war. What took place thereafter, we'll find out."
A White House official said the French allegation of an organised campaign was "utter nonsense". Quickly dubbed "the French letter", the missive became an object of derision and only heightened contempt for French actions.
"It would be nice if the French foreign ministry would stop spreading lies about America, saying the Iraq war was about blood for oil and control of the Middle East," said another official.
French foreign ministry officials said the letter was the result of complaints from French ambassadors around the world who reported the damage that these stories were doing to France's international reputation.
"We have tried to keep an account of the false accusations appearing in the American press, which have deeply shocked the French," said the ministry's spokesman. "Each time, we have firmly denied these allegations."
Another official said the stories had simply got out of hand and France had no option but to air its displeasure.
Mr Bush is due to visit France next month for the G8 summit at Evian and there were rumours that he was so angry with M Chirac that he would stay in Switzerland rather than spend a night on Gallic soil. This was denied by the White House, but there is little doubt that Mr Bush has neither forgiven nor forgotten. He is due to fly to Poland after going to France to highlight the importance of what Mr Rumsfeld termed "New Europe" compared to the "Old Europe" of France and Germany.
Responding to M Levitte's letter, Richard Haass, a senior State Department official, said it was risky to get "set off by what anonymous sources say", and France and America needed to keep their "eye on the bubble".