Defence on menu at Bonn 'dinner date'

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The Independent Online
The French president, Jacques Chirac, travels to Bonn today for a "working dinner" at which he reportedly intends to reassure Germany about France's planned military reforms.

The French cabinet is to finalise a five-year military procurement project on Monday, and Germany is known to be concerned that French budget cuts and plans to abolish conscription could have a detrimental affect on the Franco- German alliance.

However, the visit, which was scheduled at very short notice and comes less than a month before the next regular bilateral summit in the French city of Dijon on 5 June, also takes place only three days before the start of President Chirac's three-day state visit to Britain.

This is a conjunction of events that has prompted speculation about possible bilateral announcements in London of new Franco-British projects.

British diplomatic sources in Paris said yesterday that Mr Chirac's visit to Britain was expected to produce "new things we could do together" and that these could include defence, but they would not elaborate further.

They did not discount the possibility that Mr Chirac and the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, could broach topics likely to be discussed in London, but stressed that there was no way in which Britain should feel slighted by Mr Chirac's flying visit to Bonn.

Image, however, was a consideration. The British side noted that - timetables permitting - it was preferable for Mr Chirac to visit Bonn immediately before his British visit rather than immediately afterwards, as this might give the impression that he was reporting back.

German sources in Paris denied any connection between Mr Chirac's Bonn visit and his British one, and added pointedly that: "Of course, Mr Chirac does not have to ask for permission before he goes to the UK."

The Bonn dinner does allow Mr Chirac to maintain his delicate balancing act between preserving the "special relationship" with Germany - as the Franco-German "hard core" of Europe - and cultivating a new special relationship with Britain, concentrated on defence co-operation.

The French president has insisted since he came to office a year ago that, while the Franco-German alliance is vital for France, it is not, and should not be, an "exclusive" relationship.