Blair tells Chirac Labour is party of Europe

Sceptical French find there is not that much difference in British politicians
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The French President, Jacques Chirac, yesterday joined in the British election battle over Europe, telling Tony Blair there was no question of him helping John Major to overcome the 48-hour working-time directive.

At a private meeting in Paris he told the Labour leader he had been baffled by British reports that France was willing to support Mr Major's campaign against the directive during the current inter-governmental talks. With Mr Major threatening more confrontation in his demand for a reversal of the directive, Mr Blair used his visit to Paris to present Labour as the party of Europe.

But France, as he discovered, is not an easy nut for a British politician to crack, not even if he speaks good French, sounds "European", looks presentable and is impeccably briefed. Mr Blair's set-piece speech at lunch with the cream of the Paris business community combined the social concern and Euro-enthusiasm of a Gaullist president with some Euro-caution that would not have been out of place in a speech by Mr Major.

Earlier, so close to the Prime Minister's did Mr Blair's position seem to an interviewer on breakfast television that he said "Thank you, Mr Major" before correcting himself.

However, at lunch Mr Blair staked out the pro-European approach Labour would taken in the run-up to the election, saying there was little chance of successful exchanges between Britain and its EU partners while relations were so "negative and marked by distrust". He said it was unequivocally in Britain's interest to be part of Europe, constructively engaged, and playing a full part.

"That large and growing part of the British Conservatives and their allies that want Britain out of Europe are playing dangerous games with our national interests, under the pretence of advancing it."

But he also added the necessary rider, with a weather-eye on the electorate, that he would stand up for British interests, "wherever they are threatened". If I believe disagreeing with our partners is the correct course," he said, "I shall do it. But I shall not seek isolation for its own sake ... I am pleased to say there is no significant element in my party that wants me to."

Mr Blair repeated the long-standing formula on Labour's approach to the single currency, which prompted speculation that he was becoming hostile.

But Labour has long said what he told his Paris audience: that, in principle, there were advantages, but a Labour government would need to be convinced that the economic conditions would allow it to succeed - otherwise the risks were too great.

As for the Paris reaction, to British members of his audience, Mr Blair's "New Europeanism" sounded daringly Continental. However, to French ears, at least those of the French establishment, what he said on Europe still sounded grudging. French doubts were clear. "Speaking of Europe and the single currency, you said you would put Britain's national and economic interest first. Are there not other people's interests to be considered too?" asked one questioner.

How did they find him? "I'm very disappointed," said one. "Too young, far too young, and not enough experience. How many ministerial posts has he held? ... Well, then, how can he be an effective prime minister?"

Said another: "Clearly a brilliant young politician but he'll only get in because the Tories lose, not because he deserves to win."

As Mr Blair and New Labour glide into the mainstream of late-20th century politics - globalisation, deficit-cutting, sound economic management and governments that "enable" rather than govern - France's Socialists are moving rapidly in the opposite direction.

Gearing up for parliamentary elections in 18 months' time, they are embracing a highly traditional programme of renationalisation, state subsidies, and higher social benefits. Like Mr Blair, they have a good chance of winning. Mr Blair spent 45 minutes with Mr Chirac, and half an hour with the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, both signal honours for an Opposition leader.

Lunch with the premier financial daily, Les Echos, was followed by meetings with the Socialists' leader, Lionel Jospin, and the head of the Socialist parliamentary group and former prime minister, Laurent Fabius.