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No sign of entente cordiale as the two generals in a beef war come face to face

HE DISMISSED the Third Way and refused to lift the beef ban. But "sorry" was not in the vocabulary when the French general in the beef war finally came face- to-face with his British foe. Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister, gave no ground when he held his much-billed encounter with Tony Blair in the neutral territory of the Finnish capital.

The only concession Mr Jospin could make was to parley English - no small concession for a French leader - during the rather frosty conversation, which seemed to observers to be as cold as the freezing temperatures outside.

Perhaps Mr Jospin thought that his morceau of Franglais would be seen as a move towards Mr Blair's much-trumpeted "Third Way" philosophy, over which the two leaders have frequently crossed swords.

But Mr Blair, his face looking like thunder, his body language clear, was in no mood for compromise.

He normally speaks to Mr Jospin in French, and is proud of his capability in a language that improved when he worked briefly as a barman in Paris.

Yesterday, however, Mr Blair did what any angry Englishman abroad would do - he spoke in English, bluntly telling Mr Jospin that France was plain wrong to maintain its ban on British beef. There was even the suspicion that he spoke in a slow, deliberate manner to get his message across.

Clearly, however, Mr Blair's anger did little to persuade Mr Jospin that he should allow the trucks full of British beef back into France.

The encounter, which was mercifully brief, took place in what diplomats call "the margins" of the summit.

Mr Blair's spokesman, Alastair Campbell, was more prosaic: it happened just near where they were serve the coffee and cakes, he told a press conference, keen to know the full details of the meeting.

One suspects, however, that Mr Blair was more worried about beef than patisseries. He knew that the entente cordiale was stretched almost to breaking point by a decision which called into question his entire pro- European strategy and gave Euro-sceptics a field day.

With Marie Antoinette in mind, "Let them eat beef," was what Mr Blair really wanted to say.