On Geithner’s trip, grand offices and grand operas

PARIS (AP) — Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner couldn’t be blamed if he felt a twinge of jealousy after getting a glimpse of French Finance Minister Francois Baroin’s office.

Situated in a posh section of Paris, the spacious room contains enough gilded edging on its walls to make a small down payment on Europe’s debt load.

It certainly outshines Geithner’s own office back at the U.S. Treasury. That room is a fairly utilitarian affair, located in Washington’s third-oldest government building, after the Capitol and the White House.

Geithner might be even more envious if he knew that the office where he held talks with Baroin on Wednesday was merely a back-up.

The two men met in Baroin’s office in an auxiliary finance building because it was closer to the site of Baroin’s next scheduled meeting than his primary office across town was.

There’s always the need to be mindful of the time it takes to navigate Paris traffic, even with a police escort.

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If he’d had the time, Geithner could have taken in one of the premier cultural highlights in Europe. He arrived in Milan on the opening night of the new season at La Scala, the famed opera house.

Geithner could have enjoyed hearing classical music superstar Daniel Barenboim conducting Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

Italy’s new prime minister, Mario Monti, did find time to attend the performance Wednesday night. Monti is known as far more of an opera buff than was his predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi.

Geithner, who’s been meeting with one European official after another to discuss their urgent crisis, might have had all the operatic drama he could take for now.

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The Treasury secretary has been stressing during his European tour how important it is to Americans that Europe resolve its debt problems.

His message: Stabilizing the European economy, a huge market for U.S. products, would create jobs. It would help restore the confidence of U.S. consumers and businesses. And it would protect the financial markets from further stomach-churning declines.

Geithner’s remarks were aimed, in part, at critics in the United States. Some argue that U.S. financial help for Europe would provide another backdoor bailout for big banks — this time because they hold European government debt.

Most economists say helping the banks avoid deep losses might avert a calamity that could topple the world’s economy. Yet few see that argument as a political winner. That’s especially so given the heat the Obama administration took for continuing the $700 billion bank rescue that the Bush administration began.

In the United States, and in Europe, leaders prefer to stress that their intention is to help ordinary people. In his comments after meeting with Geithner, Baroin said the two had agreed that all efforts to defuse the debt crisis had to be made “to minimize the impact on the Main Street economy.”

At least that was how it was translated into English from French.

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Associated Press correspondent Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.

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