Chirac blasts Iraq war before meeting Blair

Reuters

Wed 17 November, 2004 14:02

By Madeline Chambers

LONDON (Reuters) - Last year's U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and ousting of President Saddam Hussein has made the world more dangerous by provoking terrorism, French President Jacques Chirac has said on the eve of a state visit to London.

The visit is a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale, a pact to end the two countries' colonial rivalry. But experts say agreeing to disagree may be the most Chirac and Tony Blair can hope for on Thursday.

The Frenchman fiercely opposed the Iraq war and refuses to heed Blair's call to draw a line under past differences and work with the U.S. to rebuild Iraq and pursue Middle East peace.

"I'm not at all sure that one can say the world is safer," Chirac told BBC television's Newsnight.

"There is no doubt there has been an increase in terrorism ... it also provoked reaction such as the mobilisation in a number of countries of men and women of Islam which has made the world more dangerous."

The interview followed an attack on Blair's close ties with U.S. President George W. Bush on Tuesday when Chirac said Blair could not hope to act as a global "honest broker".

The prime minister's vision of Britain acting as a bridge between Europe and the United States contradicts Chirac's desire to build a stronger European Union to counter U.S. power.

"The chemistry is so bad between these men that I don't expect much in the way of surprises in substance this week," said Steven Everts of the Centre for European Reform think tank.

Analysts expect positive words but little detail on pushing forward the Middle East peace process after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death.

"We share a common view on what we are trying to achieve so there's no reason why we can't work together on issues like Iran, Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East ... even if talks will be tough on other matters," said Blair's spokesman.

Paris says the leaders will come up with joint positions on organised crime, Africa and climate change.

ROCK BOTTOM

Diplomats say relations between the leaders are near rock bottom.

"There is an open disagreement between us and we should be honest enough to acknowledge that," said Blair's spokesman.

Relations started to sour about two years ago when France and Germany cut a deal on EU farm subsidies at a summit before Blair had even arrived at the meeting.

But the main and sometimes personal clashes have been over Iraq. A former Blair aide says British advisers were shocked when Chirac told the prime minister his son Leo would not thank him for starting a war in Iraq.

For all Blair's conviction on Iraq, he looks isolated on the world stage, especially in the light of Dutch and Hungarian plans to withdraw their troops from Iraq, say analysts.

On the EU, London argues enlargement means the centre of gravity will shift away from the decades-old French-German axis.

"The French have to decide whether to fight a rearguard action or to develop more modern relations," said former Blair adviser Stephen Wall.

But many nations think London is on the sidelines due to a eurosceptic public and failure to embrace the euro. Blair can expect little support in a looming row over London's cherished budget rebate.

An EU "troika" of Britain, France and Germany has not met since February and Paris and Berlin have revived links with Spain since a new government took power.

Chirac's two-day visit begins with the annual Anglo-French summit on Thursday morning, followed by a news conference with Blair and an evening at Windsor castle hosted by Queen Elizabeth.

On Friday, Chirac addresses students at Oxford University.

- Additional reporting by Jeremy Lovell and Mike Holden.