Paul Waugh: Not even Tony Blair's 100-watt smile can mask the froideur as Chirac plays it cool on London visit

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The Independent Online
"A fine romance with no kisses! A fine romance mon ami</i>, this is!"</p>When Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac met in London yesterday for their first summit since the Iraq conflict, there was plenty of talk about putting the cordiale</i> back into their entente</i>. But just in case anyone had worried that the old fox of the Elysée Palace had gone soft, the press conference underlined exactly how far apart the two leaders are.</p>On everything from European defence to little Leo's views on war and peace, M. Chirac ever so subtly refused to give an inch on his own position.</p>Not so much re-establishing a French connection as saying FCUK, his message on the bloody aftermath in Baghdad seemed to be simple: "I will say theees only once ... I told you so."</p>Coming three days after President George Bush waved goodbye from Teesside airport, the contrast between the American and the French visits was stark. Downing Street tried its best to claim that yesterday's meeting proved that Anglo-French relations were back on track, but most could feel the event was several degrees chillier than the warm welcome given to the American leader.</p>While the American President had been the fêted guest at Buckingham Palace, his French counterpart had to make do with Lancaster House, a few hundred yards away but much lowlier in protocol and prestige.</p>As if to make up for this treatment, Mr Blair began the press briefing by announcing that a full state visit would be accorded to M. Chirac next year to mark the 100th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale.</p>Yet even as the Prime Minister was delivering this good news, beaming his 100-watt smile, the French President was clearly not listening. In what is known in Westminster parlance as "doing a Gordon", M. Chirac was busy scribbling on a piece of paper while Mr Blair prattled on about friendship, motherhood and pain au chocolat</i>.</p>At one point, as if to hurry Mr Blair along, he even shuffled his papers à la</i> Trevor MacDonald at the end of News At Ten</i>. Mr Blair got the message, turning to welcome "Jacques" to London. The Chirac eyebrows arched suspiciously at this overfamiliarity, replying pointedly to "Prime Minister" and not "Tony".</p>Of course, the two men may genuinely have been trying to get along. But just like all former lovers, when you are trying to be just good friends, everything you say somehow comes out the wrong way. For example, only Jacques Chirac could make a fulsome compliment about the England rugby team's victory in the World Cup sound like an acerbic put-down. After praising their "brilliant" display, he said it was time to pay tribute to "the unmatched superiority of the English ...," before adding the withering "... in this respect".</p>Mr Blair's fixed smile tightened a millimetre.</p>M. Chirac went on to try to praise Britain in a range of other spheres, but again, on each occasion it sounded as if he was taking the pissoir. He welcomed the celebration of the two countrys' historic accord of 1904, but stressed that "history may well have gone another way". He may not speak Italian, but the French President spoke fluent italic. "There may well have been war between England and France, over Africa for instance. I think this is an example we should keep in mind today," he said.</p>On whether European Union defence would be a threat to Nato, he said: "I totally agree with everything that Tony Blair has just said. Obviously, as long as we are respected, there is no problem whatsoever."</p>But it was the issue of little Leo that really showed just how fractured Blair-Chirac relations have become. The French President had famously told Mr Blair at the EU summit last October: "How would you be able to look Leo in the eye in 20 years' time if you are the leader who helped start a war?"</p>Sky's Adam Boulton cleverly asked M. Chirac's his advice for when Mr Blair looked the apple of his eye, er, in the eye.</p>The Frenchman's reply was a masterpiece of insousicant score-settling. "I can't, of course, predict what the Prime Minister will say to his son when he wants to tell him these things." It was time for the italics again. "But I can say of course is that these things are not easy." Mr Blair didn't even bother to pretend a smile at this.</p>And with that, M. Chirac was off, straight into a wonderfully dismissive, arrogant, utterly French critique of the Iraq issue. The US plans to remain in charge involved "somewhat too long a period" and were "somewhat incomplete". Mr Blair has argued that he wants to act as a bridge between the US and Europe. But as the two visits of the past week have showed, his strategy may mean getting walked all over by both sides. </p>

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