Chirac 'grateful' as Merkel puts France first

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The Independent Online

A new era in German politics began yesterday with a pointed statement on the importance of an old friendship. On her first full day in office, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, chose to travel to Paris to have lunch and to be seen shaking hands with President Jacques Chirac.

Afterwards she travelled to Brussels to see the Belgian Prime Minister and the top brass of Nato and the European Commission.

Tony Blair's turn - both as British Prime Minister and current EU Council president - will come today. This is not necessarily a snub, as Ms Merkel had little choice but to visit France first. Anything else would have seemed a deliberate repudiation of the Franco-German alliance which has been at the core of the domestic and foreign politics of both countries for more than half a century.

All the same, the symbolism of Ms Merkel's Paris visit was important. Some commentators have suggested that she is less keen than her predecessors on a close partnership with France. In opposition she had criticised the informal, Berlin-Moscow-Paris alliance, forged in 2003 to oppose the American-British war in Iraq. Until last week, there were jitters in Paris that Ms Merkel might choose to visit London first. There was a tone of relief in French press commentary yesterday and even in President Chirac's declaration that he was very "grateful" for "the sign of esteem and honour" that she has "bestowed" on France by visiting Paris on her first working day.

After lunch with Ms Merkel at the Elysée Palace, M. Chirac said that the European Union could only function if there was a "truly solid Franco-German axis". He said that Paris and the new coalition team in Berlin would work to create a "political and social Europe" - in other words an EU which was not just a market.

Ms Merkel said President Chirac's remarks "matched her own deepest convictions". She also confirmed that she planned to continue the pattern of regular meetings between the leaders, and cabinets, begun by M. Chirac and Gerhard Schröder when he was Chancellor.

Otherwise, at her brief, joint press conference with M. Chirac, Ms Merkel swatted away all awkward questions. She said she and President Chirac had discussed the future of the EU budget and the future of the British rebate but declined to comment further.

On the question of future Turkish membership of the EU, she was equally vague. "A close strategic connection of Turkey to Europe is important," she said, but negotiations would be a "long process".

How well Chancellor Merkel and President Chirac will get on in the long term is open to question. The new Chancellor is said to have forged a close relationship with M. Chirac's rival and former protégé Nicolas Sarkozy, the French Interior Minister. Both believe that the "continental" European economic and social model must be reformed to compete in the global markets of the 21st century. President Chirac and his Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, talk of making only marginal adjustments to keep the French "model" intact.

On Europe, German officials say Ms Merkel accepts the importance of the relationship with France but wants also to reach out to smaller EU nations, and especially the new members from the former Soviet bloc. She is expected - continuing her symbolic tourism with a visit to Warsaw tomorrow.