British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac clashed openly Monday night over the future course of Europe's relationship with the United States as the Blair insisted they must work together for world peace and Chirac suggested it is increasingly pointless.
Chirac, speaking ahead of his state visit to London, said that Britain had gained nothing in return for supporting the U.S. over Iraq and that he did not think "it is in the nature of our American friends today" to pay back favors. "I'm not sure, the U.S. being what it is today, whether it is possible for anyone, even the British, to play the role of the friendly go-between," he said.
The French president's words came in direct contradiction to Blair, who insisted Monday night that Europe needed to work with America and could help shape its policies. Blair used a keynote speech in the Guildhall in London to warn Europe to stop "ridiculing American arguments and parodying their political leadership" and to concentrate on persuading Washington that "terrorism won't be beaten by toughness alone."
But Chirac said Britain's special relationship with the U.S. had brought few dividends. "When the divergence of views between France and Britain was at its height, when the English wanted to follow the Americans and we didn't ... I said to Tony Blair, your position should at least serve another purpose," Chirac said. "You should obtain in exchange for it a new start for the peace process in the Middle East. Because that is vital. Well, Britain gave its support [on Iraq] -- but I have not been impressed by the payback."
The clash occurs two days before Chirac visits London to conclude months of celebrations to mark the centenary of the often-stormy Anglo-French entente cordiale.
Speaking coincidentally after the announced resignation of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell -- his frequent U.S. ally in tactical battles for influence within the Bush administration -- Blair urged both sides to stop behaving "arrogantly" toward each other. U.S. policy was evolving fast, he suggested, and Europe should seize its chance to help shape its policies.
Chirac said that profound differences between Paris and London over Iraq had not soured his relations with Blair. Asked if he would tell the prime minister that he had made a mistake in supporting the U.S., Chirac said he would not, "firstly because I am polite, and secondly because I do not think he did."
He added in an interview with British correspondents at the Elysée Palace: "Blair took the position he thought he had to take in the interest of his country and his convictions. "The only problem we have ever had was over agriculture, not Iraq. On Iraq, I respect his position. On agriculture one day I got angry, and he did too. We said some disagreeable things to each other at the end of a summit. But we have never crossed words on Iraq."
Chirac denied the meeting between the two leaders would be acrimonious. "When I go to Britain I go happy; I have no desire to argue," he said. "I arrive, I ask after Leo, someone goes to get Leo, Leo starts saying 'Bonjour Monsieur Chirac' in French, I'm happy, and there we are.
"It's very curious, this vision of permanent confrontation. I have no confrontation with the English in general, or with Blair in particular." He described the Franco-British relationship as "built on competition, which implies mutual esteem ... It's a kind of violent love affair."