Suddenly the French find themselves playing solitaire

For reasons which long pre-date the Shayler affair, all is not perfect in Anglo-French relations
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The Independent Culture
STAND BY for a wave of true Brit outrage at the perfidious French. Here is David Shayler, a former MI5 agent wanted by the British authorities for allegedly leaking important secrets of state to a newspaper, allowed to walk free by a French court after a hearing into an extradition request pressed with great energy by the British Government. What could be worse for Anglo-French relations?

As it happens, there could hardly be a worse excuse for a diplomatic crisis. It's surprising how many people suffer from a peculiar blindness about the relationship between the executive and the judiciary in every country but their own.

The government may appeal. But the judicial process has to run its course, free of interference from the home government, let alone those of other countries.

Nevertheless, for reasons which long pre-date the Shayler affair, all is not perfect in relations between the British and the French. Or, more particularly, in relations between Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac, the President of France. Indeed, it is a pleasant irony that the French Premier, Lionel Jospin, the man some Blairite zealots wrote off a year or so ago as the Gallic equivalent of old Labour, has proved a rather more reliable ally to the British Prime Minister than a centre right President of the Republic, whom some in France, as well as many in the UK, mischievously thought might be ideologically closer to Mr Blair.

The most immediate cause of friction is a rather weighty one: the largely submerged differences over the threat to bomb Iraq, lifted at the 11th hour last weekend, between the French on the one hand, and the British, Americans, and let it be said, some other European governments, on the other. Mr Chirac made no secret of his belief, as the brinkmanship gathered momentum up to last weekend, that the approach adopted in London and Washington was the wrong one, and that bombing would, if anything, strengthen Saddam internally.

After the last minute acceptance by Baghdad that the UNSCOM inspectors would be allowed freely to do their work, Mr Chirac was magnanimous enough publicly to congratulate the Americans - though he mysteriously omitted to mention the British - and to repeat the Clinton/Blair warning that next time, a strike would not be preceded by negotiations. But he only did so after calls, made swiftly after the decision, from both the US President and the British Prime Minister, explicitly designed to tie him into the strategy, and to prevent him from going "off message."

The point about this is that, even allowing for the natural tendency of successive British governments to exaggerate the support from the rest of their European partners at any given moment, Mr Blair was not so isolated as the French President appeared to expect. Robin Cook - whose skills in such operations are not in doubt - George Robertson, and finally Mr Blair himself, assembled a coalition of support including the Netherlands, the Nordic countries, and - admittedly despite marked reluctance - Spain.

Most notable of all, however, was that the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, told Mr Blair that he was prepared to go to the limit of what is possible under the Federal constitution, by replacing US warships redeployed from the Mediterranean to the Gulf. This matters, not least because no one with any knowledge of the subject imagines that the West has had its last showdown with Mr Saddam.

As with the specifics on Iraq, so with the generalities of the initiative Tony Blair has been promoting for more cohesive co-operation on defence by the EU countries, and about which President Chirac, who likes to assume the lead in European defence matters, has also been distinctly sniffy.

The easy assumption is that, once again, the British are on their own, casting around for something communataire to do other than join the single currency, while at the same time using their membership of the EU to do Washington's bidding, and in the process irritating their European allies.

This misses the point, made by Mr Blair in a recent article in The New York Times, that: "If we want to continue to benefit from America's commitment to defending Europe... we owe it to the United States to pull our full weight." In short, if Europe consistently fails to get its act together, it will fuel the mood of domestic isolationism which constantly threatens US Foreign Policy. And there are signs that other European leaders, especially Schroder, are beginning to understand this.

As always in politics, the human factor should not be discounted here. Recent developments may have made the French President feel just a little lonely. Helmut Kohl has gone, to be replaced by a man who seems to enjoy a similarity of outlook, on both foreign and domestic policy, with the British Prime Minister. There may even be a generational element; at the Porschach EU summit, where Mr Chirac held out against British plans for a special G7 economic summit, there was an elegiac little exchange, overheard by journalists, between a coatless Mr Blair and a French President clad in an elegant overcoat and scarf: "Pas de manteau? C'est parce que tu es jeune homme and je suis un viel." [No coat? It's because you're a young man and I'm an old one].

Mr Chirac may have just a sense that he does not really belong to the new generation of centre-left leaders, the baby boomers like Mr Clinton and Mr Schroder, or even younger like Mr Blair himself.

There is a serious danger in British foreign policy of exaggerating the closeness of the Anglo-German relationship, and not just because of the marked differences between the neo-Keynesian tendencies of the German Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine, visiting London yesterday, and the Anglo-Saxon attitudes of both Blair and Gordon Brown. The frequency, depth and scope of contacts between British and German officials do not, and probably never will, match those between French and German officials. There is nevertheless a sense - which may or may not prove to be transitory - that at least on issues of defence and security it is Mr Blair, and not Mr Chirac, who may be going with the grain of millennial Europe.

Iraq, especially, has posed - and not exclusively in London - the deeply wounding and once unthinkable question: is the President of the French Republic, for all his vast experience and acumen, still quite "un homme serieux"?

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