It's France that has a special relationship with America

What the US President hears from M. Chirac will be very different from what Mr Blair tells him

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Tonight, President Bush gives a dinner in honour of President Chirac. This will take place in Brussels at what will be the end of the first working day of the US President's visit to Europe. Put this together with the fact that two weeks ago, when the new Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, swung through Europe, she chose Paris as the place where she would give her most important speech. It hardly appears, then, that France's opposition to the invasion of Iraq has earned her lasting American disapproval. For guest lists, timetables and itineraries are all part of the language of diplomacy. What the Americans are saying to France by these gestures is - we can talk to Jacques as well as to Tony.

Tonight, President Bush gives a dinner in honour of President Chirac. This will take place in Brussels at what will be the end of the first working day of the US President's visit to Europe. Put this together with the fact that two weeks ago, when the new Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, swung through Europe, she chose Paris as the place where she would give her most important speech. It hardly appears, then, that France's opposition to the invasion of Iraq has earned her lasting American disapproval. For guest lists, timetables and itineraries are all part of the language of diplomacy. What the Americans are saying to France by these gestures is - we can talk to Jacques as well as to Tony.

Yet the differences between the way France handles its relationship with the United States and the British method are profound. At the heart of the Anglo-American alliance is the nuclear weapon. Since 1961, Britain has had available to it much of America's nuclear weapons technology. In contrast, France has developed its own systems. Britain's nuclear deterrent largely depends on co-operation with the US; France's does not.

There is another area of co-operation with the US, in which again France has declined to become involved. This is intelligence sharing. American officials even attend the meetings of Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee, which provides regular assessments for 10 Downing Street. There has been no comparable sharing of intelligence information between the US and France.

Successive British prime ministers, defence chiefs and foreign office officials have always put a high value on these two relationships. In its dealings with Washington, therefore, London believes it has something very important to protect. Paris evidently has much less at stake. This profoundly influences the way each conducts its relationship with the superpower. Is London's dependence on the US sensible?

I am unconvinced. During the Cold War, by maintaining their own deterrents, Britain and France could protect themselves from attack by the Soviet Union even if the US took away its nuclear umbrella over Western Europe. The other European states lacked this extra safeguard. But those days have long since passed. For Britain and France today, the advantages of independent nuclear deterrence, whether based on American technology or not, are much less than they were.

As to intelligence sharing, the days when any single country, or pair of countries, should hoard intelligence have also been left behind. For effective action against the threats from terrorist units hostile to the West demands maximum co-operation between intelligence agencies. In particular, the French, with their knowledge of radical groups within France's large Algerian community, are likely to dis- cover material of first-class importance for British and American security - and of course the reverse will be true.

There is a further disadvantage that British dependence on the US brings. This is the idea that Mr Blair is Mr Bush's poodle. In other words, the relationship is seen as humiliating. For example, we give the US all the assistance that we can possibly provide in its attack on Iraq, and receive absolutely nothing in return. In the case of British citizens locked up in Guantanamo Bay, for instance, we ask the American government for their early return so that they may be subject to our system of justice. No can do.

Likewise, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to take another example, recently put forward ambitious proposals for cutting Third World debt at a meeting of the finance ministers of the world's richest countries including the US. The British government believes that such action should be part of a programme aimed at doing something about Africa's poverty. Same answer again, I am afraid, from the Americans. No can do. Even The New York Times was sufficiently shocked to publish an editorial criticising the negative decision.

So Mr Bush will have dinner with M. Chirac this evening. I cannot even guess what will be said. It is likely to be very different from what the American President hears from Mr Blair. However politely phrased, however veiled, everything M. Chirac says is likely to be based on beliefs shared across Western Europe. The chief of these is that it is unwise to launch pre-emptive attacks on independent nations. And I would add that it is wrong to dispense with the Geneva standards on the treatment of prisoners of war, and the prohibition of torture. The example of Iraq makes these arguments with stunning force.

Goodness knows, M. Chirac is far from being a morally inspiring figure. Corruption charges await him when he steps down as President. He has been a brazen opportunist all his political life. But somehow, France, better than Britain, has preserved its ability to criticise US power and stand clear of it at times. M. Chirac is a Gaullist, and this is the inheritance of President de Gaulle. In this sense, France is leading Europe, not Britain.

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