The diplomat

Daniel Bernard is Jacques Chirac's eyes and ears in Britain. He estimates that the workload of his embassy has tripled
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The Independent Online

On the desk of the French ambassador to the Court of St James on Friday morning was a photocopy of a leading article from one of the day's papers. It was about international terrorism, and someone had added a couple of pen-marks, drawing his attention to a particular point. Such details matter to M Daniel Bernard. He needs to understand exactly what Britain is thinking and feeling, right down to the last nuance, if he is to keep ministers in Paris properly informed. And more so now than ever.

"I was in Brighton for the Labour conference when Mr Blair made his important speech," M Bernard says. "It was everywhere immediately. You could read it on the internet. But from the feeling around the conference hall, I had a very good idea of the mood."

By definition, the role of diplomacy is a discreet one. And people are perhaps even less aware of it during a crisis. We hear the big speeches by George Bush and Tony Blair. We follow the build-up of troops. The turmoil of ordinary people caught up in the drama is vividly brought home. But just out of sight are the diplomats, trying not to look as if they are hurrying as they move from meeting to meeting, even when those meetings are happening three times as often as they did before 11 September, which is the French embassy's estimation.

For M Bernard, the clarity and accuracy of the information he carries between London and Paris is of paramount importance. His meetings are at Foreign Office level rather than prime ministerial level, but he is a key link to Mr Blair when President Chirac or the prime minister, Lionel Jospin, are in town. The task of being the man in the middle at the moment is, he says, "made all the easier because France and Britain have identical views on the substance and gravity of the problem, and of the necessity to show the Americans our dedication to support them".

Hang on, though. Wasn't M Chirac sounding a rather more cautious note than Mr Blair? M Bernard will have none of it. "I was particularly annoyed to read in some less enlightened sections of the press certain clichés about the position of the French, all the more so because this appeared at exactly the time when the 15 EU member nations were meeting and agreeing on the same position."

It may be a rare Frenchman who truly feels an affinity with the British, but the urbane M Bernard is one of them. Aged 60, he grew up in Lyon at a time when France's second city became one of the first to set up a twinning arrangement with an opposite number in Britain. Which is how, as a schoolboy, he came to Birmingham on an exchange, discovered cricket, and hardly looked back. He studied English at the University of Lyon, and a career in the upper echelons of public service led to an ambassadorial posting to the Netherlands in 1993 and a role as France's representative at the UN in 1995, before he arrived in London in 1998.

M Bernard thinks Anglo-French relations are at their best level ever. "Of course we are different, fundamentally so, but nevertheless the proximity of our views is considerable." He has no doubt that Britain shares the understanding with France that "one of the guidelines for years to come is the construction of a strong Europe".

Is Britain moving closer to Europe? "It's a long-lasting process," M Bernard says. "In Europe we have made war for 1,000 years, and we have had peace for 50 years. The EU has lasted for 40 years and this I think is an irreversible process. You must not judge things with your nose too close to the paper. You must have height as well." There's something reassuring about the long view of history at a time like this.