'He's no poodle - we like poodles in Le Touquet'
Wednesday 05 February 2003
Outside Le Touquet's splendid neo-Gothic town hall, Charles Clarke, flanked by his French counterpart, Luc Ferry, talked about warmth: the warmth engendered by this event, the warmth of the reception, the warmth of the ties between Britain and France. It was some feat by the Education Secretary. Forget about the froideur between the two countries over Iraq, Zimbabwe and farm subsidies; the icy wind blowing off the Channel was enough to chill the bones of even the most thick-skinned politician.
''C'est froid, Le Touquet,'' exclaimed Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the French Prime Minister, 30 minutes earlier when he stepped off the Airbus taking the French delegation to the town's small airport. He shook hands with the few spectators, before granting an exclusive interview to The Independent. ''Why have you forgotten to bring your jumper?'' he enquired of our Paris correspondent.
At the town hall, Jacques Chirac (who remembered to bring his scarf) greeted Tony Blair, and the body language was simple to translate. After the military band played the national anthems, the French President put a friendly arm around his guest's waist to usher him along the red carpet towards the crowd. The townsfolk of Le Touquet had gathered in impressive numbers to wave their plastic flags and meet the two premiers. Much of the time, M. Chirac had his hand on Mr Blair's shoulder. There were spontaneous chants of ''Chi-rac, Chi-rac'' and a brief moment of excitement when the President spotted a baby, but, alas, he couldn't reach across the crowd to seize his photo opportunity. For Mr Blair, it was "bonjour" all round.
The military guard stood, sabres glinting in the sporadic sunshine, as the two men disappeared up the steps for some sabre-rattling of their own. This was the biggest such event in the 120-year history of Le Touquet and the town had put on its best suit for the occasion – even the furniture at the town hall was replaced for the day by more sumptuous items from the national collection. (The meeting, symbolically, took place in a room designed for bilateral agreements – it's where civil marriages are conducted.)
A northern coastal resort of 5,000 permanent residents (more than twice that number have holiday homes here), Le Touquet was an appropriate venue for an Anglo-French summit. It was created by the British for the British at the turn of the 20th century, and Tony Blair and his party would not have felt they were in unfamiliar terrain. All around are British influences. The hotel where they had lunch is The Westminster; houses they passed on their way from the airport have names like "Fairway" or "Byways" or "Home Sweet Home"; P G Wodehouse and Ian Fleming lived here; and much of the architecture is of a mock-Tudor style found primarily in the Home Counties. Much of the town's popularity today derives from its golf course (opened in 1904 by one of Tony Blair's predecessors, Lord Balfour), and for the many thousands of British visitors who come here, it is regarded as Wentworth-sur-Mer. As M. Chirac said later, ''Le Touquet is symbolic of the friendship between the two countries.''
There were a few Britons in the crowd who welcomed Mr Blair at the town hall, although it was a local resident who most appositely summed up the differences between the two nations at the moment. ''We wouldn't say that Tony Blair is George Bush's poodle,'' she said, ''but that's because we like poodles too much in Le Touquet.''
At the later press conference, however, the entente could not have been more cordiale. On Iraq, M. Chirac would not be drawn by persistent questioning on the what-if scenario, preferring to repeat his country's insistence on following the United Nations route. For now, his message was clear: Vive la Resolution!
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