Opponent charmed the Iron Lady

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The Independent Online

Political Editor

There was a curiously touching coda to the long and often stormy relationship that Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand enjoyed between his election as President in May1981 and her fall in November 1990.

When on that day in Paris, during the Conference on Security and Co- operation in Europe, the Prime Minister heard she had failed to see off Michael Heseltine's challenge she faced the prospect of a banquet at the Palace of Versailles and a ballet. Needing time to compose herself, she sent a message that she would be late and that the banquet should start. When she finally arrived she found Mr Mitterrand waiting at the palace doors. "Of course we would never have started without you," the President said - and then, as she wrote later, "with the considerable charm at his command, he accompanied me inside as if I had just won an election instead of half-losing one."

Mitterrand's remark that Baroness Thatcher had the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe does only partial justice to a complex and intense relationship. It was as much characterised by the mutual respect of two big politicians as by the genuinely fundamental differences between their domestic and European political goals.

In the end, of course, they could never agree about the future of the European Union and the President's active participation in Helmut Kohl's project of an integrated Europe. Indeed, Lady Thatcher's main disappointment was that he did not have a more Gaullist adherence to a Europe des nations. But they agreed about some important aspects of foreign policy - not least on the Soviet Union, and at least in private, according to the British, on German unification.

Sir Charles Powell, her former foreign affairs private secretary, said yesterday in a BBC radio interview that relations between the two were warm - considering their deep differences. He described how she had once been impatient to end a meeting at the Elysee Palace because she had seen in Paris-Match some pictures of the President's lavishly refurbished private apartments. Naturally he obliged by showing her round.

Sir Charles did not have time to tell of how he had waited with some apprehension as the two walked round the Elysee gardens during some especially tricky phase of Anglo-French relations. When they came into view he noticed the President's hand bandaged with one of Lady Thatcher's handkerchiefs. Had she forgotten herself and lashed out at him with the famous handbag? Fortunately not. The President had been bitten by one of his dogs.