Ignore the intellectuals - Blair and I get on fine, insists Chirac

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The Independent Online

President Jacques Chirac travels to London this week for another session of what he called yesterday "tough love" between Britain and France, in which he hopes to advance the causes of Middle East peace and European defence.

President Jacques Chirac travels to London this week for another session of what he called yesterday "tough love" between Britain and France, in which he hopes to advance the causes of Middle East peace and European defence.

But in an interview with British correspondents in Paris yesterday, he spoke pessimistically of Tony Blair's chances of obtaining any significant concessions from the Bush administration on the management of the twin crises in the Middle East.

"I'm not sure the United States, as it is today, in its present mood, is ready to make concessions to anyone, even the British," he said. "They are not in the mood to do one favour in return for another."

In most other respects, before he spends Thursday and Friday completing the celebrations of the centenary of the Entente Cordiale, and the annual Anglo-French summit, M. Chirac was in a upbeat, even ebullient mood.

Suggestions that disputes over Iraq and the EU had permanently wounded the Anglo-French relationship were the inventions of journalists, opposition politicians and, worst of all, intellectuals, he said. There was no deep-seated disagreement or personal animosity between himself and Tony Blair, "a man I esteem and admire".

He added: "Tony Blair and I have never quarrelled over Iraq. We have quarrelled only once and that was about agriculture ... Harsh words were exchanged between us. But we were both tired at the end of a European Union summit. It was soon forgotten."

Contrary to what might be expected, he said, he was not travelling to London expecting an argument or a fight. He was expecting to be received as a family friend.

"I walk in to [10 Downing Street]. I ask, 'How is Leo?' The estimable Leo is sent for and he is shown to me. He says, 'Bonjour M. Le President' and 'Bonjour, M. Chirac'." In French? "Yes, in French.

"Then we sit down and have an excellent meal. I am expecting a meeting in which we can agree and advance Anglo-French co-operation in many areas, and especially in the subject of European defence."

Asked how he would characterise the Anglo-French relationship, after 18 months in which the French have been vilified in some of the British press and the President caricatured as a worm in The Sun, M. Chirac said French and British relations had always been based on "fierce competition" but also an underlying mutual admiration. "I would say that the relationship between France and Britain is like a relationship of amour violent," the President said.

On the Middle East, M. Chirac said there was no question of any change of the French position, which rules out sending French troops to Iraq. "Like anything else, of course, that could change," he said. "But it would be completely astonishing if it did." He urged the US to "engage more closely" in the reconstruction of civil and economic society in Iraq. "The elections [in January] are all very well," he said. "But as things are, they may lead only to more divisions and more hatred."

Otherwise, he said, France planned to continue to argue its own case on the Iraqi conflict, without responding to the "insults" from the Anglo-Saxon world. "We had our own analysis of what the problem was and how to respond to it. Tony Blair respected that. Elsewhere we were bombarded with insults, but we did not respond and we will not respond. There was no whisky poured down the gutters in Paris."

On the future of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Mr Chirac said Britain and France shared many ideas. This was one issue which would be discussed in depth in the political, rather than ceremonial, part of his visit to London. A joint statement by the two governments on the Middle East was possible.

It was wrong, he said, to suggest Britain and France had diverging, or even hostile, points of view on the future of the European Union. "I have been in politics a long time, probably before any of you were born," he said. "I have known the European Union a long time. From the beginning, people have said, first the French and Germans, then the British and French, have incompatible views of what Europe should be. It will not work."

"This is what the intellectuals say and you should always listen to intellectuals because they are very interesting people. But they are always wrong."

The European Union would solve its problems and move forward, hopefully with "yes" votes in the referendums in Britain and France, M. Chirac said.

"Why? Because Europe is inevitable. We are heading, inevitably, I have said it before, for a multi-polar world, in which there will be an American pole, a Chinese pole, a South American pole, an African I hope, and a European pole."

In this multi-polar world (a Chiraquian concept detested in the US), the President said that two things were vital. First, the United Nations should be reformed and revitalised to prevent the "appalling prospect" of a war between continental blocs. Second, that Europe should be united and strong enough to join with the US - not to fight the US - in imposing a democratic and open view of human relations.

Asked whether, at 72 this month, he would stand in the presidential election of 2007, he said: "To give you the deep and considered reply that you are expecting, I have to say I have not yet decided."