Blair in last-ditch talks with Jospin as beef lawsuit looms

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BRITAIN AND France begin a last-ditch round of talks over beef today, with the European Commission warning that legal action against Paris will start on Tuesday if the ban on UK exports remains in place.

However, France signalled last night that it was urgently seeking a political solution, contradicting reports the previous day that it had hardened its position. Sources close to Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister, said discussions would go on through the weekend until Tuesday's deadline if necessary, starting with a meeting of officials in Brussels today.

With the threat of legal proceedings looming, Romano Prodi, the European Commission President, held talks yesterday with both Tony Blair and Mr Jospin in an attempt to find a diplomatic settlement. Although the day passed with Paris not yet in a position to lift the ban, sources close to the French Prime Minister described the talks with Mr Prodi as "constructive".

The commission maintained its threat of legal sanction saying in a statement that "if steps to lift the embargo are not in place then the first steps of a legal procedure against France for non-respect of community law will be taken".

It also confirmed that, even if the legal action begins on Tuesday, there will still be an opportunity for further talks before the matter comes to court - something not likely to happen for several months.

Senior British sources were keen yesterday to play down reports of French intransigence. "When you look at what their ministers have actually said, they are not locked into a position. It has been overblown in some parts of the British media. We are still working with their officials towards a solution, but Tuesday is the crunch meeting," one said.