Always cordial

The continuing rift between Chirac and Blair over the Iraq war is unlikely to mar their talks in London.

Published November 18, 2004 2:52PM (EST)

French President Jacques Chirac expressed fresh doubts about the invasion of Iraq on the eve of his visit Thursday to Britain, saying it had left "the world more dangerous." Chirac's comment, in an interview broadcast Wednesday night, came only 48 hours after he undercut Tony Blair by suggesting the British prime minister had failed to secure any concessions from George W. Bush in spite of supporting the war.

The French president is in Britain for two days to mark the end of months of events marking the 100th anniversary of the entente cordiale, the alliance agreed to after centuries of warfare. Chirac has prefaced his trip by describing relations between France and Britain as un amour violent (a stormy love affair), steeped in fierce competition and mutual esteem. "It has led us to love each other and to detest each other," he told British journalists.

After reviewing a guard of honor of British and French soldiers, he is to have talks with Blair at Downing Street, make a speech on transatlantic relations to an audience of diplomats and defense specialists, and join the queen in the evening at Windsor Castle.

The president has the potential to make life awkward for Blair at a joint press conference Thursday if asked about Iraq or relations with Bush. Questioned on "Newsnight" Wednesday about whether the Iraq war had made the world safer, Chirac said: "To a certain extent Saddam Hussein's departure was a positive thing, but it also provoked reactions, such as the mobilization in a number of countries, of men and women of Islam, which has made the world more dangerous. There is no doubt that there has been an increase in terrorism and one of the origins of that has been the situation in Iraq."

Not surprisingly, he ruled out sending French troops to Iraq, even though he had sent them to Ivory Coast. "The situation there is altogether different. The French in Côte d'Ivoire act under the mandate of the U.N. and also under a unanimous mandate of the African Union. The two cases are quite distinct."

The Iraq war is the main point of departure between Chirac and Blair. It has also left relations between the U.S. and France fraught, in contrast with the closeness of the Bush-Blair relationship.

Chirac has argued that Blair should realign Britain more with the rest of Europe, as a counterbalance to the power of the U.S. -- a view that is rejected by both Bush and Blair. In the "Newsnight" interview, Chirac described anti-French feeling in the U.S. as confined to "an agitated minority" and noted that Americans continued to visit France in large numbers. "I notice that they are still enthusiastic about our cheeses, our chips, our wine," he said.

His vision is of a world in which a few blocs will dominate: the U.S., Europe, and an Asian bloc dominated by China. He said he was not anti-America and said he favored the U.S. and Europe working together, preferably through an updated U.N. Blair resists total involvement in a European bloc and instead positions Britain as, to use his metaphor, a transatlantic bridge between the U.S. and Europe.

Despite some differences, there is common ground between the French and British governments on other issues. Chirac will line up with Blair in making Africa and climate change the two main issues for next year's meeting of the Group of Eight industrialized countries. Bush has refused to implement policies to tackle the gas emissions that contribute toward climate change.

While Chirac and Blair talk, six ministers accompanying the French president will meet their counterparts in their departments, and all 14 will then gather for talks at No. 10. They will publish a joint communiqué highlighting areas of common interest.

France has joined Britain and Germany in pursuing an energetic diplomatic approach to Iran over its suspected ambition to build a nuclear weapons capability. The trio has already secured a tentative deal with Tehran that the U.S. is skeptical about.

The French and British governments also share the same basic view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although they differ on tactics. Blair sees the way to make progress through influencing Bush and trying to keep relatively close to the Israeli government. Chirac, dismissing this as a failure so far, wants Europe to act as a united bloc. Chirac insisted the differences between Paris and London over Iraq had not poisoned his personal relationship with the prime minister.

"When I go to Britain, I go happy," he said. "It's very curious, this vision of permanent confrontation. I have no confrontation with the English in general, or with Blair in particular."

By Ewen MacAskill

MORE FROM Ewen MacAskill

By Jon Henley

MORE FROM Jon Henley

Related Topics ------------------------------------------