Blair presses Chirac on Iraq
LE TOUQUET, France -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair has begun uneasy one-day summit talks with President Jacques Chirac dominated by the issue of war with Iraq.
Blair meets Chirac hard on the heels of a visit to U.S. President George W. Bush and is expected to press the French leader to soften his opposition to a U.S.-led attack on the regime of Saddam Hussein.
The meeting in the French seaside resort of Le Touquet comes after Blair won tentative support from Bush at talks last week to go for a second U.N. resolution getting wide international backing before taking any military action.
It also comes with a backdrop of seriously cooled relations between the two leaders over a range of issues -- the summit was postponed by Chirac in December after a spat on EU farm policy after which he called Blair "very rude."
On Iraq. while Blair reaffirmed on Monday that Iraq's disarmament had now entered the "final phase," France insists everything must be done to disarm Baghdad without war.
Arriving for the talks, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin underlined his country's reluctance to join in military action against Iraq.
Asked what France would do if a second resolution was reached, Raffarin, speaking before the two leaders arrived, said: "Don't go too fast."
CNN's Robin Oakley says the issue France has left open is whether Chirac will use France's veto in the U.N. Security Council, where it has key influence as one of five permanent members. (Analysis)
Oakley says that Blair had however taken heart from the fact that France has sent an aircraft carrier to the Eastern Mediterranean on Tuesday and that Chirac had said to French troops in a New Year message that they should be ready for anything this year.
Ahead of the summit, which will also produce accords on defence, education and immigration cooperation, British officials acknowledged differences on Iraq but stressed both countries wanted the crisis resolved at the U.N.
"The British policy since the start of this crisis has been to reinforce the authority of the United Nations," Denis MacShane, British Minister for Europe, told France's RTL radio.
"I find it hard to believe France does not want to bolster the authority of the United Nations... but the United Nations must solve this problem, not just put it off," added MacShane.
Chirac and Blair were due to give a news conference after their talks at 3:50 p.m. local (1450 GMT).
Officials in London and Paris were playing down the chances of a major shift in the French position at the summit, which comes a day before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell unveils what Washington says will be proof Iraq is hiding banned arms.
France has so far backed requests by U.N. arms inspectors for a few more months to complete their work, shrugging off insistence by Bushand Blair that Saddam has weeks to disarm or face war.
Paris has also resisted the conclusion of Washington and London that inspectors' reports already show Baghdad in "material breach" of U.N. commitments, a view which potentially paves the way for war.
A poll for Britain's Channel Four television showed Britons split over Blair's allegiance to Bush, with 54 percent of 1,000 people polled saying he should instead improve relations with European leaders like Chirac and Germany's Gerhard Schroeder who has publicly opposed war with Baghdad.
Yet efforts by France and Germany to form an anti-war axis were undermined last week when other European leaders including
Blair signed a letter declaring their support for the U.S.position, sparking speculation Chirac might come on board with the U.S. and Britain after all -- fearing isolation if the international coalition starts to rebuild Iraq.
On Monday, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said France would assess Powell's evidence with an open mind.
"We shall weigh up the arguments presented by the Americansand we shall decide our position," Raffarin told India's The Hindu newspaper ahead of a trip to India.
Another thorny issue at Le Touquet is Chirac's move to invite Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe to a French-African summit this month, a trip Britain insists flouts EU sanctions imposed over alleged election rigging.
British officials denied a French press report on Monday that both sides had cut a deal in advance allowing him to come.
But a Foreign Office spokesman said Britain could do little to stop the February 21 visit because it comes two days after
the first set of sanctions -- which London wants renewed -- are due to lapse.
The event has been carefully choreographed to produce accords on defence, asylum and education with a number of ministers from both countries spreading the political load. But neither side is pretending that Iraq will not dominate.
British defence officials said new moves were likely to be agreed to extend co-operation on the European defence initiative.
UK Home Secretary David Blunkett is expected to agree moves to curb asylum seekers with his French counterpart, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, including plans for more joint immigration controls.