A summit meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac yesterday ended with France refusing to soften its opposition to swift military action in Iraq. Although the leaders addressed a range of bilateral issues at the summit, including European defense, African development, Afghanistan, and terrorism, the impending UN decision on disarming Iraq was at the top of the agenda.
Paris, 5 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's one-day French-British summit in the French seaside town of Le Touquet ended with French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair saying they agree on two fundamental points surrounding Iraq: that it must be disarmed and that disarmament should be conducted through the United Nations. Beyond that, however, the leaders said differences remain specifically on how to achieve those ends.
Throughout the 45-minute press conference following the day's meeting, Blair and Chirac emphasized their countries' points of unity and friendship rather than focusing on their differences. But Chirac was clear that France's "different approach" remains unchanged regarding the UN inspections in Iraq led by Hans Blix and International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohammad el-Baradei. "The essential thing is to allow the inspectors to continue their work, consider any new information that might emerge, notably from statements which are expected tomorrow [today] from [U.S.] Secretary of State Colin Powell. We intend to wait for the conclusions that Mr. Blix and Mr. el-Baradei will be making and that will be put on the 14th of February to the Security Council," Chirac said.
Powell is set to present evidence that Baghdad is hiding banned weapons from UN arms inspectors when he addresses a session of the Security Council today.
Blair went to the Le Touquet summit hoping to try to persuade Chirac to support a second Security Council resolution authorizing military action against Iraq, or, if that failed, to extract a commitment not to veto one.
France is one of five permanent Security Council members with the power to veto UN resolutions. Chirac, backed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, which this month assumed the chairmanship of the council, has taken the lead in opposing a military strike on Iraq.
Chirac would not comment on whether France would veto a second resolution or what circumstances would change France's position. Instead, Chirac calmly appealed for patience, expressing his faith in the UN inspectors and saying war should be the last option. "Above all, I feel that war is always the worst possible solution. I would add that in that region, we do not need any additional wars. Having said that, I repeat that I feel we need to wait. We've adopted a strategy of using inspectors. We need to have confidence in the inspectors. I do. I think everybody does. And we need to give those inspectors the amount of time they need to carry out the work we've entrusted to them. That's my position," Chirac said.
For his part, Blair, Washington's closest ally in the Iraq crisis, tried to smooth over any differences that might exist between the French and British stands on Iraq. "Of course, there are the differences that are familiar to people. But I think it is again important to emphasize again the two common points that the president alluded to. [Those are] support for the notion of disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and the belief that this is best pursued through the United Nations," Blair said.
Last week, eight European governments, including Blair's, backed Washington's stance on Iraq with a public letter. France and Germany did not sign the letter.
Yesterday's summit did seem to successfully patch up what have been strained French-British relations for the past several months. The annual meeting was originally scheduled for December but was postponed after a verbal spat between the two leaders over European Union farm subsidies.
Blair ended the conference with a message in French: "If you will permit me a last reflection in French, if I may, it's that what I learned today is there are many more things that unite us than divide us. That's all, thank you."
During the talks, the two leaders also struck a series of agreements on defense, education, and asylum.