Chirac and Bush unearth common, if tough, ground

22nd February 2005, Comments 0 comments

BRUSSELS, Feb 22 (AFP) - US President George W. Bush and his old adversary French President Jacques Chirac appear to have turned the page on differences over Iraq, focusing at meetings here on how to tackle tough issues like Iran, the Middle East peace process and Syria.

BRUSSELS, Feb 22 (AFP) - US President George W. Bush and his old adversary French President Jacques Chirac appear to have turned the page on differences over Iraq, focusing at meetings here on how to tackle tough issues like Iran, the Middle East peace process and Syria.

Since his arrival here on Sunday on the first leg of a fence-mending trip in Europe, Bush has been trying hard to send a strong signal of his willingness to open a new chapter in ties with European partners, especially those which fiercely opposed the US-led war in Iraq.

Setting aside their bones of contention, Bush and Chirac, attending dual NATO and US-EU summits on Tuesday, were determined to inject some detente into French-US relations at a dinner on Monday in the US ambassador's residence.

Even the menu was designed to appease past tensions, featuring French fries, or chips, which the US House of Representatives officially renamed them "freedom fries" in its cafeteria during the war in Iraq to protest French opposition to the US-led invasion.

"This is my first dinner since I've been re-elected on European soil, and it's with Jacques Chirac - and that ought to say something," Bush said.

On Tuesday French officials and press welcomed Washington's conciliatory overtures, but voiced concerns that the improving relations were still fragile.

Conservative French daily Le Figaro said: "The change in tone was spectacular" but asked: "Does he really need Europe? Despite the repeated assurances, it's not sure."

A member of parliament in Chirac's UMP party, Pierre Lellouche, said in Paris: "We want to work together on the Israeli-Palestine peace process, on Lebanon, maybe on Iran as well.

But he added: "There will still be subjects that cause anger, that's clear".

Although the two leaders were smiling as they met in Brussels, they were clearly not that relaxed, with Bush consciously avoiding any mention of the war in Iraq, which soured ties two years ago.

While stressing common values and vision, Chirac however acknowledged the tensions, saying "Of course, we can have our differences, our divergence of opinion. Recently, this was the case. We didn't share the same view over Iraq."

Accused in the past of being deaf to criticism, Bush signalled his readiness to listen to the French president, saying: "Every time I meet with Jacques, he's got good advice."

"We've got a lot of issues to talk about: Middle Eastern peace, Lebanon, Iran, helping to feed the hungry," he added.

It was a call taken up by Chirac on Tuesday who urged greater dialogue between the US and NATO.

But the two leaders found common ground on Lebanon, issuing a tough joint statement condemning the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14 and calling on all Syrian troops to be withdrawn from Lebanon.

"We support the UN investigation into this terrorist act and urge the full cooperation of all parties in order to identify those responsible for this act," said the joint statement.

Other issues tackled in Monday's talks were Iran's nuclear programme, which Washington has alleged is aimed at building an atomic bomb.

France also wants to stop Iran gaining nuclear arms, but has led efforts with Germany and Britain to cajole Tehran back into compliance with international nuclear accords by offering lucrative trade deals.

Washington has so far refused to rule out the military option.

Turning to a remaining point of contention, Chirac and Bush discussed how Europe might allay Washington's concerns about moves to lift an EU arms embargo on China, a top US official said, adding: "It became clear that President Chirac understood the American problems."

However, some US newspapers warned that the issue of China could pour cold water on warming US-EU relations.

"The disagreement risks damaging the very relations Mr. Bush's trip was meant to repair," said The Wall Street Journal.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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