- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

LE TOUQUET, France, Feb. 3 (UPI) — When French President Jacques Chirac meets British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the seaside resort of Le Touquet on Tuesday, expect plenty of entente but do not count on it being very cordiale.

Never very close to begin with, Europe's two most powerful leaders have fallen out in the past — most notably over the French ban on British beef and Paris's failure to prevent illegal immigrants from flooding through the Channel Tunnel — but rarely as openly and as spectacularly as in recent months.

In October, Chirac was so incensed by Blair's "rude" behavior following an acrimonious row over farm subsidies that the septuagenarian president postponed a Franco-British summit scheduled for Dec. 3.

The two leaders kissed and made up at a NATO meeting in late November, but deep divisions over how to disarm Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and deal with Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe have once again strained relations between Paris and London.

Although both capitals signed up for United Nations Resolution 1441, which calls on Saddam to disarm or "face serious consequences," the two leaders have widely differing interpretations over what this implies.

For Blair, Washington's staunchest ally in Europe, it means allowing limited time to U.N. weapons inspectors and ratcheting up the military pressure on Baghdad to comply with the Security Council resolution.

For Chirac, however, it means granting the United Nations inspectors as much time as they need and avoiding war with Iraq at all costs.

The divisions were highlighted last week when Blair, along with seven other European leaders, signed a letter of support for the United States' hard-line position on Iraq in major international newspapers.

Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, who ruled out war under any circumstances last month, were not even invited to add their names to the pro-American manifesto.

Despite the gulf between the two camps, British officials and newspapers are confident that Blair will be able to convince Chirac of the need for a military strike against Baghdad if it is backed by a second U.N. resolution.

"Chirac to change position on Iraq, predicts Downing Street" screamed a headline in the left-leaning Guardian newspaper Monday, citing sources close to Blair.

British diplomats are keen to point out that during the 1992 Gulf War, former President Francois Mitterand opposed military intervention before sending French troops to the region.

They also underline the ambiguous stance of Chirac, who has dispatched the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean but knows that the vast majority of French men and women are opposed to a second Gulf war.

"The signals coming out of Paris are a bit confused," lamented one British official on the eve of the 25th Franco-British summit. "Chirac would like to play a leading role in voicing EU opposition to the United States, but it is not clear that is what the rest of the EU wants. It also risks marginalizing France on the world stage."

There is little doubt that Blair's hand has been strengthened by U.S. President George W. Bush's grudging support for a second U.N. resolution. But Blair will need all his legendary charm to persuade Chirac to do a diplomatic U-turn when the two men discuss Iraq over lunch in Le Touquet's Westminster Hotel on Tuesday.

Chirac's decision to invite Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to a Franco-African summit in Paris on Feb. 19 has certainly not helped to calm the cross-channel storm.

The EU slapped sanctions on Harare last year because of human rights abuses and allegations of vote-rigging in the runup to elections. At a meeting of EU foreign ministers last week, London pushed for the travel ban on Mugabe to be extended by a year, but France boycotted the proposal to allow the Zimbabean leader to attend the Paris meeting.

Diplomats say Chirac and Blair are likely to agree a compromise which would extend sanctions for a further 12 months, but only after the Paris summit.

The two leaders are also expected to rubber-stamp a raft of proposals that could boost the EU's nascent defense policy and shore up Britain's leaky borders against waves of bogus asylum seekers.


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