Blair reaches for the sky as French arrive

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The Independent Online
President Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin arrive tonight for the latest Anglo-French summit. As Rupert Cornwell and John Lichfield explain, the omens are set for a friendly meeting. But striking French truckers and the planned single European currency could yet spoil the show

Almost as important as the contents of the summit perhaps are its setting and trappings, picked by the Government to project a new-model Britain under new-model Labour.

Canary Wharf is an emblem of the revived Docklands district of east London. Interior decor on its hitherto unoccupied 38th floor, where tomorrow's talks will be held, comes courtesy of Terence Conran, while the wind- up lunch will be prepared by a trendy young British chef, Anton Escalera, of the Midsummer House restaurant in London.

Before comes the serious discussion, complicated by the dictates of cohabitation. Mr Blair will have 75-minute sessions with the Gaullist president and his Socialist prime minister, and a mere 15 minutes a trois. Truckers permitting, Europe looks set to be the main item on the diplomatic menu.

Mr Chirac arrives 24 hours after meeting Chancellor Helmut Kohl. His aim here will largely be to defuse hostility to plans, largely French- inspired, for a Euro-council of single-currency countries, which London fears would exclude non-EMU members like Britain from Europe's key economic and monetary policymaking forum.

But he and Mr Jospin will say it will be in Britain's interest if sterling is merged into the Euro in due course, as Messrs Blair and Brown seem to intend. France believes the new body will enable a measure of political and democratic management for the Euro-zone, to offset the technocratic powers of an independent, unelected European Central Bank.

Mr Blair will be probing French intentions for the bank, after Mr Chirac and Mr Jospin made their proposal this week of a French candidate, Jean Claude Trichet, Governor of the Bank of France, as its head. It throws into doubt prospects of the former Dutch central-bank governor Wim Duisenberg, and has caused consternation in Bonn, a strong supporter of Mr Duisenberg, and in the Hague. France is also not convinced of the merits of a German suggestion that Britain should be given a seat on the bank's six- man board, even though it is outside EMU.

The summit will come giftwrapped with bilateral agreements: an Internet link between French and British schools, Franco-British co-operation on recruitment techniques for a volunteer military to which France is converting and an announcement that a children's' garden will be laid out in Paris, named in honour of Diana, Princess of Wales.

But there are potential areas of trouble, most obviously the truckers' strike. Neither side wants it to dominate proceedings, certainly not the French Socialist government, which does do not want to venture into the citadel of New Labour half-paralysed by an Old Labour industrial dispute.

But if it is not settled by this evening , there will be no avoiding the topic. And whatever happens, British officials say, Mr Blair will raise the matter of unpaid compensation for losses incurred by British hauliers from similar disruption in 1996.

On Iraq, London and Paris are united on insisting United Nations arms inspectors must be allowed to work unhindered. But Britain will be watching for any hint of backsliding by the French, given the abstentions of France, Russia and China on a UN sanctions resolution last month, which gave President Saddam Hussein the opening to cause trouble now.

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