Cordiale or not, the Entente will survive

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The Independent Online

Perhaps there is never an ideal time for a state visit. A year ago, President Bush's sojourn was reduced to the bare essentials to shield him from protests against the Iraq war. President Chirac's visit this week was similarly perfunctory, but probably for different reasons. The threat here came not from the mood on the streets, but the mood at Downing Street. Mr Blair and M Chirac have never been bosom buddies, but the very public scolding London directed at the French over Iraq brought relations to a low from which they have only recently started to recover.

Perhaps there is never an ideal time for a state visit. A year ago, President Bush's sojourn was reduced to the bare essentials to shield him from protests against the Iraq war. President Chirac's visit this week was similarly perfunctory, but probably for different reasons. The threat here came not from the mood on the streets, but the mood at Downing Street. Mr Blair and M Chirac have never been bosom buddies, but the very public scolding London directed at the French over Iraq brought relations to a low from which they have only recently started to recover.

Britain's contribution to the Bastille Day parade in Paris, including an immaculate fly-past by the Red Arrows trailing red, white and blue down the Champs-Elysées, was a well-judged gesture that inaugurated the rapprochement. M Chirac's state visit, concluding events to mark the centenary of the Entente Cordiale, provided an opportunity for France to reciprocate. It did, and it didn't, with true Gallic panache.

M Chirac did his utmost to be polite about Mr Blair's attachment to the United States. He went out of his way to deny to an audience in London's Guildhall that either his vision of a "multi-polar world" or his vision of Europe was directed against Washington. They were, he said, simply post-Cold War reality. In a nice irony, he was speaking from the selfsame platform from which Mr Blair had insisted on Britain's unique role as "bridge" between the two continents only days before.

Yesterday, in Oxford, on the last leg of his visit, M Chirac was similarly alert to British sensibilities. France's relations with Britain, he said, were equally important as its relations with Germany. This is exactly the sort of message Downing Street likes to hear, as is the emphasis that M Chirac placed on the defence aspect of the relationship. Britain is useful to France in Europe as a counterweight to the Germans and because of its military strength. This is why, deep down, relations between our two countries are never likely to be as tense as they often appear on the rhetorical surface. It is also why they transcend the personal foibles of individual leaders.

The point is that the Entente no longer needs to be cordiale to be effective. After 100 years, it is time to lay this tired old cliché to rest.

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