No end in sight for fierce spat between Mexico, France

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 17, 2011 

MEXICO CITY — Relations between France and Mexico appear to grow more poisoned by the day, trapped in a deepening quarrel over the fate of a 36-year-old Frenchwoman convicted of kidnapping in Mexico.

The conviction of the Frenchwoman, Florence Cassez, was upheld by a high court a week ago, and she now faces a 60-year term in a notorious Mexican jail.

Since then, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has spoken passionately and repeatedly about her situation, and his foreign minister declares that France will fight until "justice prevails and the rule of law is respected."

"We will not leave this young woman in prison for another 60 years," Sarkozy said in Paris on Tuesday, announcing that hundreds of cultural and trade events across his country to celebrate Mexico this year would be dedicated to Florence Cassez.

In retaliation, a furious Mexico canceled all 350 or so events.

"The government of Mexico considers that the conditions for the Year of Mexico in France do not exist for its properly declared purpose," a statement from Mexico's Secretariat of Foreign Relations said. "Unfortunately, the government of Mexico will not be able to participate in these activities."

Mexico's embassy in Paris said Thursday that its ambassador "sadly found himself obliged to leave" a session of the French Senate the night before because of new remarks about the case by French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie.

What might seem like a garden-variety dispute, rebounding from the diplomatic to the cultural arena, has broader ramifications. France will hand over the chair of the Group of 20 leading economies to Mexico next year, and the chill between the two nations is likely to hinder action on global financial issues.

At the heart of the case is a woman who evokes opposite sentiments on each side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Cassez has widespread support in France, where many view her as victim of a corruption-prone Mexican judiciary. Sarkozy met with her parents earlier this week.

In Mexico, many see her as a gangster. An opinion survey of 600 people by the polling firm Cabinet of Strategic Communications released Wednesday found that four out of five Mexicans think Cassez should complete her jail term in Mexico and not be allowed to return to serve the time in her homeland, as Sarkozy asks. Only 8 percent think she is innocent.

"Sarkozy is feeling out how to raise his popularity. It's very low now and elections are coming, so he's going after Mexico, which is demonized the world over," said Arturo Arango Duran, a security analyst in the capital.

Differing political constituencies in the two countries seem to preclude a quick solution to the bilateral spat, and may even allow it to worsen.

Many Mexicans concur, however, that the capture and trial of Cassez were irregular and even bizarre.

Cassez came to Mexico in 2003 and soon moved in with a boyfriend, Israel Vallarta, a suspected leader of the Los Zodiaco kidnapping gang, in a ranch house near the capital.

She was arrested on Dec. 8, 2005, by agents of the equivalent of Mexico's FBI. The next day, the agency called in television crews to film a mock raid resulting in the capture of Cassez and other alleged gang members. Only later did the agency admit it was a re-enactment.

In a small cabin behind the ranch house, agents found three kidnap victims, including Cristina Rios and her then-11-year-old son. Cassez was convicted on the testimony of captives who said one of the kidnappers had a foreign, perhaps French, accent. Maintaining her innocence, Cassez said she did not know abductees were held at the ranch or that her then-boyfriend was a criminal. Vallarta has confessed but said Cassez was not involved.

Mexico is suffering through a spate of kidnappings, often by gangs that keep their captives in deplorable conditions, mutilating them to pressure for ransoms.

Rios wrote a public letter in 2008 after Cassez was given a 96-year sentence, later reduced to 60 years, that the Frenchwoman's voice "drilled into my ears, that same voice that my son has said is that of the woman who drew his blood to send to my husband, along with an ear that they wanted him to believe belonged to the boy."

For the moment, the most immediate cost of the quarrel is the cancellation of several exhibitions, including one later this month of a loaned collection of jade Mayan masks, and another later in the year of artworks by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

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