Friendly talks fail to hide deep rift between Chirac and Blair

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The Independent Online

Both leaders put on a show of unity despite their contrasting visions of Europe after the talks at the Elysée Palace. They exchanged pleasantries about Mr Blair's son Euan, who is currently working in Paris, before heading into the meeting. M. Chirac, stiff but smiling, emerged one and a half hours later to tell reporters that "we are both determined to agree to be a force for harmony for tomorrow's Europe".

Neither leader sought to diminish the depth of the split between France and Britain on the future social and economic model for Europe, although M. Chirac put it down to "technical" problems. M. Chirac said: "Everyone knows there have been and there will be differing views, particularly on technical problems between Great Britain and France, and that is normal. But you must also know that we are aware of the current difficulties of Europe, and that our goal is to see that these difficulties disappear and do not increase."

But, highlighting the chasm between the UK and France, Mr Blair said: "It is important for all of us that we regain a progressive vision for Europe."

The Prime Minister was in Paris as the current EU president, seeking M. Chirac's views before an informal summit on Europe's future to be held at Hampton Court at the end of the month. While he has spoken to other European leaders by telephone, Downing Street felt that a personal contact with the French government was indispensable.

Mr Blair's personal relations with M. Chirac seem beyond repair after a series of public clashes dating back to the Iraq war, followed by the bitter debate on Europe after the French and Dutch voters in effect scuppered the new EU constitution. The last EU summit in Brussels in June collapsed dramatically, with Britain and France on opposing sides over the budget. M. Chirac then added insult to injury by complaining about the quality of British food.

Yet British diplomats said that yesterday's talks, which overran the scheduled length by an hour, took place in "a good, matey atmosphere". Mr Blair then went to the Matignon palace for a 25-minute private meeting with French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, with whom he had begun to forge a relationship despite the difficulties over the Iraq war, when M. de Villepin was foreign minister.

In a two-hour French television appearance on Wednesday night - as part of his unspoken efforts to present himself as a presidential candidate - M de Villepin stated that "the French social model should not be thrown in the rubbish bin".

Mr Blair refused to comment on M. de Villepin's remarks, but said that the thrust of the forthcoming EU summit would be to discuss how Europe can handle the challenge of globalisation.

"The French see globalisation as a threat. We see it as an opportunity," a British official said.

The French had feared that Mr Blair's Hampton Court summit would be an attempt to push through a more liberal, looser form of European co-operation. "After the rejection of the constitution, they thought it would be a summit of reformers, with Mr Blair as the number one moderniser and Angela Merkel as the number two moderniser," said a senior French official. With Germany's conservative leader still failing to break through as chancellor, the French feel that Mr Blair may be persuaded on Europe that "there is not one model or another. There is no single model".

The talks in Paris also allowed Mr Blair to gauge M. Chirac's state of health. The 72-year-old President has been weakened politically by a mini-stroke.