Chirac hopes for calm in summit with Major



Jacques Chirac arrives in Britain tomorrow for his first summit on British soil since taking office in June. After an unhappy few months in the international arena, in which France has been isolated over nuclear testing, ceded ascendancy in the West's Bosnia policy to Washington, had to calm German worries about the franc and been made to look foolish by Algeria, the French President can look forward to two days of relative calm, first at Chequers and then in London.

But the high hopes for the British-French relationship, raised at least by the British side after the first Major-Chirac summit in June, do not seem to have been entirely justified. The active role taken by President Bill Clinton in former Yugoslavia has left the celebrated British-French co-operation on the sidelines. While military collaboration in Bosnia appears to be flourishing, competition for the diplomatic credit has left Paris and London arguing about who will host what sort of Bosnia conference as the prospect of peace draws closer.

What appeared to be Britain's ambition of gaining a bilateral relationship resembling that between France and Germany seems also to have been disappointed, or at least to be proceeding more slowly than anticipated. Although there are visible strains between Paris and Bonn, over what Bonn sees as the laxness of the French government's economic policy and its backsliding on implementing the Schengen agreement on open borders, the "special relationship" persists, and it has not been augmented by a French-British equivalent.

The fact remains that, as Mr Chirac noted in June, the Franco-German alliance is a "necessity", even if officials on both sides concede that relations have rarely been worse.

It is hard to imagine Mr Chirac flying to London at short notice, as he did to Bonn this week, to reassure John Major that Paris was not changing its priorities.

One notable point of agreement between Britain and France in advance of this weekend's meeting is the "excellent" state of bilateral relations and the equally "excellent" state of personal relations between Mr Chirac and Mr Major.

However, the two sides clearly differ on the weight they give to this personal element. For Britain, it tops the bill; for France, it comes close to the bottom, after the hard practicalities of military, defence, and foreign policy co-operation.