France seeks closer links with London

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France is rethinking its ``special'' European relationship with Germany and hoping to form other alliances, notably with Britain and Spain, the French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, said yesterday. Mr de Charette also made a strong defence of the Schengen accord on open European borders and said many of the difficulties experienced during its first three months were for France to solve.

The Foreign Minister was making a statement on France and Europe in the National Assembly in advance of next week's Cannes summit, which marks the end of France's presidency of the EU. For the most part he simply summed up France's known priorities in Europe, including its support for the expansion of membership and its view that, while European institutions needed to be adapted to accommodate new members, they did not need to be "torn down and rebuilt from scratch".

On special relationships within the EU, he appeared to go even further than President Jacques Chirac had done after his meeting with John Major, 10 days ago. While the Franco-German alliance was the ``pivot'' of French foreign policy, Paris was keen that other special relationships should be developed. He hinted that the exclusivity of the Franco-German relationship meant that France's diplomatic clout was more limited than it needed to be.

Franco-British political and military co-operation on Bosnia had shown one possibility. There was also potential for a special relationship with Spain, on Mediterranean issues and the single currency.

Mr de Charette seemed to criticise Germany at one point, saying that "certain countries" wanted to go "further and faster" even if there was no "collective response" from the other members. After his meeting with Mr Major, Mr Chirac had said that while the Franco-German relationship was "essential", there could not be a Europe without Britain.

On Schengen and relations with other EU countries, however, Mr de Charette offered views that suggested policies were being reviewed and reconsidered. His stout defence of the Schengen accord (in which nine EU countries have agreed to remove all controls at their mutual borders) contradicted - in tone - a highly critical report published by the French Senate earlier in the day.

This attacked the operating of the joint computer system and database, saying that it was overloaded, much of the data was useless and there were compatibility problems between the French and German systems.

Calling for the trial period to be extended by another six months when it expires at the beginning of July, the report also criticised the Dutch position on drugs, which - it said - left France open to traffickers. It also pointed to the failure of member countries to co-ordinate visa requirements and difficulties that had arisen over the right of "hot pursuit" over borders.

In the National Assembly, however, Mr de Charette insisted, to shouted objections from the floor: "We can't blame Schengen for the fact that our surveillance does not work properly on the motorways that cross the frontier." He made no mention of any need to extend the trial period. He is believed to be under strong pressure from Germany, which is opposed to any alteration in the trial period.