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Chirac and Blair agree to disagree

By CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley

Blair and Chirac face the press
Blair and Chirac face the press

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LE TOUQUET, France (CNN) -- There were plenty of smiles when Prime Minister Tony Blair and a few of his senior UK ministers rolled into the French seaside town of Le Touquet for a summit with President Jacques Chirac and their French opposite numbers.

Agreements were swiftly stitched up during the mini-summit, on Tuesday, on immigration, education and European defence issues. (Story)

But could Blair charm Chirac away from his cool stance on military action against Iraq? The answer was 'non.'

Chirac said: "I consider that war is always the worst of all solutions and I don't think that we need an extra war in that particular region."

Chirac insisted that he and Blair both wanted Saddam Hussein rid of his weapons.

For the French leader, the best way of achieving that was to continue with the peaceful work of the U.N. arms inspectors.

But for how long?

Chirac said: "I can't establish a timeframe. It's not up to me. I have full confidence in the inspectors."

With Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush talking about weeks, not months, before a decision on military action would have to be taken, the contrast could not have been clearer.

It was clear that Blair was in much more of a hurry.

He said: "There's an inspectors' report coming out on February 14 and I think we should take account of that very carefully."

Iraq was the first subject Chirac raised at Tuesday's joint press conference.

Significantly it was the last one mentioned by Blair. Though both chose to accentuate the positive.

Said Blair: "Of course there are the differences that are familiar to people.

"But I think it is important to emphasise again two common points the President alluded to -- support for the notion of disarming Iraq of the weapons of mass destruction and the belief that this is best pursued through the United Nations."

The body language was not strained, and there was time for a laugh or two. But nobody was budging.

It was never a realistic hope for Blair's team that Chirac would announce a sudden conversion to the war cause at their meeting.

In fact there was no sign the French president had altered his opinions one jot. But neither did he pick a public fight.

And with a French aircraft carrier sailing the same day for the eastern Mediterranean, the UK contingent noted that Chirac still has not closed off the option of using force, provided that doing so is sanctioned by the U.N.

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