Departing leaders show rare unity

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac are expected to display unusual unity on a range of issues, from Palestine to the future of the European Union, when they meet in Paris today.

Past quarrels over Iraq and the European Union budget have been solved or shelved. Both men are unpopular in the polls and, probably, approaching the end of their frontline political careers.

Like veteran heavyweights in the final round of a bruising contest, they have more interest in propping one another up than reopening old wounds.

"We have entered a peaceful phase in the Franco-British relationship," President Chirac's spokesman, Jérome Bonnafont, observed.

"We have not had a quarrel with the French for about six months now," a British official said.

Mr Blair and President Chirac will discuss next week's EU summit and broadly agree that - in the absence of any grand plan for the future - Europe should concentrate on practical advances in areas such as energy and environmental policy.

Mr Blair is said to be somewhat doubtful, however, about a Franco-German plan, which was agreed earlier this week, to lay down a timetable for progress on a successor to the defunct EU constitution by the end of 2008.

The two men are said to see eye to eye on most pressing world issues, including the need to agree a formula for feeding funds to the Palestinian Authority - without formally endorsing Hamas and its refusal to recognise Israel.

There will also be bilateral talks between the French and British foreign, defence energy, education, environment and Europe ministers. A first meeting between the new Home Secretary, John Reid, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the powerful French Interior Minister, has been cancelled because of pressure of other engagements.

M. Sarkozy, likely to be M. Chirac's successor as the dominant figure on the right, will visit London in the next few weeks.

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