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Tuesday, 4 February, 2003, 10:22 GMT
Blair to press Chirac over Iraq
Tony Blair (L) and Jacques Chirac in London, November 2002
Smiles cannot mask the two leaders' differences

French President Jacques Chirac and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair are holding a one-day summit with the issue of Iraq dominating the talks.

The meeting in the French coastal resort of Le Touquet will also focus on European defence and immigration issues as well as the dispute about whether the European Union should extend sanctions against Zimbabwe.

Mr Blair, fresh from talks at the White House with President Bush, will try to persuade Mr Chirac to support the idea of a second UN resolution which would authorise the use of military force against Saddam Hussein.

Saddam Hussein with his generals
Saddam will be concentrating minds in Le Touquet
France, which could in theory veto such a resolution, has been expressing grave doubts. It wants UN weapons inspectors to be given more time.

Faced with a decisive choice, it is not yet clear which way Mr Chirac will choose to jump.

There has been a working assumption that in the end the French will side, however reluctantly, with the US.

They will not risk a decisive split, the argument goes, which could undermine the UN by forcing Washington to act alone.

Equally, they will not risk losing a share in the rebuilding of Iraq and its huge oil wealth.

France's line

That still may be the case, but there is another theory - that Mr Chirac really is looking at a new way of doing things.

There is no doubt that his foreign policy has become more assertive since he won a second term last year and got rid of an awkward domestic alliance with a socialist government.

As things stand, Mr Chirac has grave reservations about backing US military plans, and his mood will not have been improved by the letter signed behind his back by Mr Blair and seven other European leaders last week which called for unity with the US.

French officials say they still believe the weapons inspectors are the best way to disarm Iraq.

"We have to make sure they are allowed to work as long as they want to work," said one Chirac ally, "and we will stick to our position."

So there is a lot at stake for Tony Blair and this may not be the best time for him to try to talk Mr Chirac round.

Bad blood

On the positive side, the two men intend to unveil a new defence initiative which will help prove that they can co-operate effectively.

Britain and France are by far the most important military powers in the European Union, and they both know that plans for a common European defence identity will get nowhere unless they work in tandem.

On the other hand, they will have to talk about Zimbabwe.

France has invited Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to Paris this month despite sanctions imposed by the EU against Zimbabwe.

Britain is, to put it mildly, not pleased.

For now, there is no agreement on how EU sanctions, which expire the day before Mr Mugabe's visit, might be renewed.

In public, of course, Mr Blair and Mr Chirac will be cordial, but there is no love lost between them at the moment.

This meeting was supposed to have taken place last year, but it was postponed after a row about farm subsidies between the two men at an EU summit in Brussels.

Now the big issue of the day is Iraq, and they do not agree on that either.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jon Sopel
"The world will be watching President Chirac"
Gilles Bouleau, French TV channel TF1:
"These two guys are not getting on very well"

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See also:

04 Feb 03 | Media reports
02 Feb 03 | Middle East
03 Feb 03 | Politics
02 Feb 03 | Americas
27 Jan 03 | Americas
28 Oct 02 | Politics
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