Sarkozy launches new era with gaffe

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David Cameron declared yesterday that a new chapter has been opened in Britain's relationship with France after the signing of a wide-ranging defence agreement. Questions remained, however, about just how faithful the new partners will be to each other.

A key part of the deal will involve the aircraft carrier of one country defending the national interest of the other. Nicolas Sarkozy, asked whether France's Charles De Gaulle vessel would speed off to the Falklands in the event of a confrontation with Argentina, said: "We are not identical... and I know that there is the Channel between our two countries."

He added: "If you, my British friends, have to face a major crisis, could you imagine France simply sitting there, its arms crossed, saying it's none of our business?"

According to critics that, precisely, is the fear. Bernard Jenkin, a former Conservative defence spokesman, was doubtful that help would be forthcoming in a future tussle over the Falklands. "There is a long track-record of duplicity on the French part. When it comes to dealing with allies, we should never be under any illusion. The French act in what they see as their strategic interests," he said.

Mr Cameron acknowledged that political agreement would be needed for joint military operations, but stressed that this had already taken place in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Notably absent from his list was Iraq, when France's refusal to join the US-led invasion provoked opprobrium from Washington and London.

Mr Sarkozy thanked the Prime Minister for upgrading the one operational carrier Britain will have, the HMS Prince of Wales. The additional work, at a cost of £700m, will allow French Rafale jets to fly from the UK carrier, as well as the American F-35 fighters the Royal Navy has ordered.

The Independent revealed in September that the summit would agree to co-operation on the nuclear deterrent, and yesterday's declaration signed by the two countries said: "We plan to develop jointly some of the equipment and technologies for the next generation of nuclear submarines."

The Liberal Democrat peer Lord Ashdown said France's long-term objectives were likely to alarm many Tories. "I am clear that Paris sees this as the first move to wider European defence co-operation, which I am strongly in favour of. Paris's view and long-term aims on this will be inimical to many in the Conservative Party, including maybe our Defence Secretary [Liam Fox]," he said.

Before departing for a lunch of British beef with French wine, Mr Sarkozy insisted that the treaties would not infringe on sovereignty. "In France sovereignty is as touchy an issue as it is in Britain" he said.