Anglo-French spat masks wider policy harmony: Despite cross-Channel rhetoric, leaders in London and Paris are found increasingly on the same side of the fence, writes Annika Savill, Diplomatic Editor

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The Independent Online
IT MAY have seemed like old times when France's parliamentary speaker said this week that it was no wonder one in two Britons wanted to emigrate, since their Prime Minister did not know the difference between humour and rudeness.

The day before, a French minister said Britain and its Prime Minister were 'beginning to reason like countries of the Third World', and he called on the French to compare themselves 'to what is good - Germany'. John Major had prompted the salvo of French polemics with his quip that businesses were 'dumping socialism' by leaving France for Britain.

But the same week, Roland Dumas, the French Foreign Minister, made a remark that left the opposite impression of the Anglo-French relationship: France and Britain were the only countries, he said, who all along had been pulling their weight in Bosnia.

Beneath the cross-Channel rhetoric, wielded by two embattled governments largely for domestic consumption, lies the fact that on the international stage, it is France and Britain - not France and Germany - who find themselves increasingly on the same side of the fence. As one observer of Anglo-French relations put it: 'Because (the rhetoric) is played out against a domestic audience of neanderthal Gaullist elements on one side and neanderthal Euro-sceptics on the other, it is difficult for the two to spell out their most important interest in the long term; the European contribution to maintaining international order. It begins with Britain and France.'

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said recently that in a 'huge area of security' there 'is now a more intimate working together between the British and the French than I have ever known'.

The most immediate example is that of the former Yugoslavia, where the French have resisted military intervention as much as the British, while, like Britain, they have contributed UN troops on the ground. A senior French official said recently that, logically, any commander of a future peace-keeping force in Bosnia to police a long-term peace agreement should be French or British.

The historical French abhorrence of Nato military planning has not proved to be the problem it might have been. As one British diplomat said: 'The planning discussions, basically under a Nato umbrella, about post-settlement peace-keeping in Bosnia could easily have been areas for diversions and detours by the French. But they haven't been.'

Mr Hurd has gone out of his way to acknowledge the common interests with the French. In his January speech at Chatham House outlining Britain's future role in the world, he singled out the French before any other partners: 'I must say I find in this new world that the interests of Britain and France are increasingly similar and intertwined . . . Yesterday, the aircraft carrier Clemenceau was ordered to the Adriatic, last week the Ark Royal. In neither case do we mean to extend the scope of our military action, in both cases we aim to reduce the risk to our own troops.'

The shared interest goes wider than that. The reduction in the US presence in Europe, and Germany's ambiguity over out-of-area involvement, make an Anglo- French partnership a logical European defence structure. Both suffer from defence budget cuts that bring home the fact that solo military projects, such as fighter aircraft, are a thing of the past.

British diplomats were jubilant last month when the French Defence Minister, Pierre Joxe, picked up Mr Hurd's theme in a speech to the Wehrkunde conference in Munich.

Mr Joxe spoke of a 'fundamental community of interests, of which the relationship between France and Great Britain is often the illustration'. He added: 'As Douglas Hurd said recently, our interests are more and more similar and interlinked.' There was 'the strategic interest in the general stability of the continent' and even 'a joint destiny'. There was, since the Gulf war, a 'special bilateral relationship' in defence. Joint plans also included equipment, such as inter-operability of defences, and, between the two nuclear powers of Western Europe, a dialogue about co-operation on nuclear deterrents.

Until recently, the French public emphasis had been on security co-operation with Germany, such as the Franco-German corps. But Mr Joxe acknowledged that France's policy was based on a continuing need to contain the Germans when he declared that 'with Germany, our relationship is different' to that with Britain. Three centuries of history had 'brought forth the cry from both our peoples: 'Never again]' '

On Monday the German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, said Germany would eventually register its claim to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. 'But,' he added, 'there are still two countries that are opposed - Britain and France.'

Underlying much of the common Anglo-French outlook is the fact that France and Britain are both seeking to justify a continued position as medium-sized global players among the Permanent Five. This they seek to do by what Mr Joxe described as a 'tradition of a virtually permanent presence overseas' through peace-keeping. The shared colonial past adds another layer of argument: after the breakdown of the Cold War order, France and Britain will act as ombudsmen for their former dependencies.

The cross-Channel link may not be ready to be dubbed the new special relationship yet, but the dynamics are worth watching.