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UK Politics

Entente féminine that binds UK and France

Cross-Channel friendship fosters a centre-left alliance

When Ed Miliband shook hands with François Hollande on the steps of the Elysée Palace last week, the protocol-breaching moment was hailed as a victory for a Labour leader trying to establish himself as a statesman-in-waiting – even though one French photographer didn't recognise him.

The French President is said to admire Mr Miliband and sees him as a key ally in forging a new centre-left anti-austerity alliance in the European Union. But the story behind the handshake began several years ago with a cross-Channel friendship between two women advisers now hailed as rising stars in their parties.

Emma Reynolds, Labour's shadow Europe minister, and Axelle Lemaire, the new French Socialist MP for northern Europe, became friends while working in Westminster during the last Parliament. Friends say their entente féminine has been instrumental in bringing Mr Miliband and Mr Hollande together.

In 2006, Ms Lemaire, 37, was a researcher for Labour's former Europe minister Denis MacShane while Ms Reynolds was a special adviser to Geoff Hoon, who was appointed Mr MacShane's successor. Both were fluent in each other's languages, intellectual and fascinated with politics. Ms Lemaire set up the London section of the French Parti Socialiste (PS).

By last October, Ms Reynolds, MP for Wolverhampton North East and Ms Lemaire, who was campaigning to be MP for one of France's 11 new overseas seats representing French expats in northern Europe, helped organise primaries to select the Socialist presidential candidate.

After Mr Hollande's victory in the primaries, both women lobbied their leaders for a new "centre-left entente cordiale", leading to Mr Hollande's meeting with Mr Miliband in Parliament last February, when David Cameron snubbed the Socialist candidate. Both women were at their leaders' side during a lunch for top figures in each party. It paved the way for last week's visit.

Ms Lemaire was unavailable for comment last night but Ms Reynolds said the relationship between the Parti Socialiste and the Labour Party was "stronger than ever before", although there were some ideological differences, with the French Socialists to the left of Labour. President Hollande, she said, had always been a "pragmatic social democrat much more in keeping with New Labour than other parts of the PS".

Mr MacShane said last night: "I have watched Emma in the House of Commons and she is as good as any of the 2010 vintage of women MPs. It is good that both British and French politics have this couple who know and like each other's country, language and political culture.

"At a time when no Tory MP dare be anything other than anti-European, and the French anti-EU right and hard left are growing in strength, it is good to have Axelle and Emma there with the facts, arguments and experience to show being EU member states is good for Britain and France."