Ignore the Intellectuals - Blair and I Get on Fine, Insists Chirac

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PRESIDENT JACQUES Chirac travels to London this week for another session of what he called yesterday "tough love" between Britain and France, in which he hopes to advance the causes of Middle East peace and European defence.

But in an interview with British correspondents in Paris yesterday, he spoke pessimistically of Tony Blair's chances of obtaining any significant concessions from the Bush administration on the management of the twin crises in the Middle East.

"I'm not sure the United States, as it is today, in its present mood, is ready to make concessions to anyone, even the British," he said. "They are not in the mood to do one favour in return for another."

In most other respects, before he spends Thursday and Friday completing the celebrations of the centenary of the Entente Cordiale, and the annual Anglo-French summit, M. Chirac was in a upbeat, even ebullient mood.

Suggestions that disputes over Iraq and the EU had permanently wounded the Anglo-French relationship were the inventions of journalists, opposition politicians and, worst of all, intellectuals, he said. There was no deep- seated disagreement or personal animosity between himself and Tony Blair, "a man I esteem and admire".

He added: "Tony Blair and I have never quarrelled over Iraq. We have quarrelled only once and that was about agriculture ... Harsh words were exchanged between us. But we were both tired at the end of a European Union summit. It was soon forgotten."

Contrary to what might be expected, he said, he was not travelling to London expecting an argument or a fight. He was expecting to be received as a family friend.

"I walk in to [10 Downing Street]. I ask, `How is Leo?' The estimable Leo is sent for and he is shown to me. He says, `Bonjour M. Le President' and `Bonjour, M. Chirac'." In French? "Yes, in French.

"Then we sit down and have an excellent meal. I am expecting a meeting in which we can agree and advance Anglo-French co-operation in many areas, and especially in the subject of European defence."

Asked how he would characterise the Anglo-French relationship, after 18 months in which the French have been vilified in some of the British press and the President caricatured as a worm in The Sun, M. Chirac said French and British relations had always been based on "fierce competition" but also an underlying mutual admiration. "I would say that the relationship between France and Britain is like a relationship of amour violent," the President said.

On the Middle East, M. Chirac said there was no question of any change of the French position, which rules out sending French troops to Iraq. …