France, Poland patch up wounds at Arras summit
ARRAS, France, Feb 28 (AFP) - Presidents Jacques Chirac and Aleksander Kwasniewski sat down Monday at an inaugural Franco-Polish summit with the aim of settling past differences over the US invasion of Iraq and building unity between "Old" and "New" Europe.
The two heads of state, accompanied by several government ministers, were given a Polish welcome as they arrived in the northern French town of Arras, in the centre of a region home to a community of half a million French Poles.
“Witamy,” cried some of the hundreds who turned out in the main square under a chilly but sunny sky to see the delegations, using the Polish word for welcome.
In a traditional gesture, the members of the Polskartois association presented both leaders with a gift of bread and salt after walking across the main square to the sound of the respective national anthems.
Chirac thanked them in Polish, with the word “Dzienkuje”, and greeted the crowd before he and Kwasniewski headed to meet a group of schoolchildren and then went into the 16th century City Hall for talks.
In a show of unity, France and Poland issued a joint statement demanding “the withdrawal of foreign forces and special services” from Lebanon and that elections in that country take place “without outside interference” – words directed at Syria, which maintains troops and influence in Lebanon.
The statement also expressed support for a UN inquiry into the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri, who had opposed Syria’s hand in his country’s politics.
Despite the public display of togetherness, France and Poland have several issues of disagreement.
Falling on either side of the divide of “Old” and “New” Europe coined by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the two were at loggerheads over the US invasion of Iraq. Poland contributed troops to the invasion and subsequent occupation while France led opposition to it.
The two presidents discussed other points of contention, notably France’s restrictions on Polish immigrants looking for work and pressure from France, Britain and Germany on Poland to buy passenger planes from Airbus rather than from the US company Boeing.
Chirac was said to have strongly pressed the cause of Airbus. Polish airline LOT’s fleet is comprised entirely of Boeings. Poland has long sought stronger commercial ties with the United States, home to a sizeable Polish diaspora.
French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin – who personified France’s anti-war stand on Iraq when he was foreign minister – downplayed the differences and insisted instead that the welcome shown in Arras showed “the force of the links and the solidarity between France and Poland.”
French officials stressed that France is the biggest foreign investor in Poland and its third-biggest trading partner.
They also said that the leaders saw eye-to-eye on the need to simplify EU machinery through the adoption of an EU constitution.
Speaking at a joint press conference later, Chirac said the joint statement “affirms our ambition to work together and do all to ensure that whenever a problem arises we will resolve it in the best spirit.”
There had been a broad convergence of views on EU questions such as a reform of the economic stability pact or strengthening EU military defences. “If we have had divergences, they are over,” said Chirac.
Kwasniewski also stressed the restoration of friendly ties between the two countries. From Poland’s viewpoint it was very important tot share France’s views on European questions, he said.
The Polish president also made a pointedly friendly gesture on the question of purchasing airliners.
Of Airbus, he said: “This is a great European project.
Poland was considering very seriously all the arguments put forward by French, British and German leaders in favour of Airbus, he said.
The press conference however did reveal differences on the subject of Russia.
Chirac said establishing good relations with Moscow should be a strategic objective, although differences of opinion should not be hidden.
Poland’s relations with its former dominating partner in the communist pact have become muddied recently by bitter disagreements over the disputed presidential vote in Ukraine.
Kwasniewski was a key negotiator in resolving the crisis over Ukraine’s disputed presidential election, which was initially awarded to the pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich but then annulled by the Ukrainian supreme court because of fraud.
A new runoff election was one by the pro-Western Ukrainian leader Viktor Yushchenko.
Russia had openly backed Yanukovich, with President Vladimir Putin twice visiting Ukraine during the election campaign to lend him support, and angrily accused the West of interfering by backing the opposition’s claims of ballot fraud.
Poland, a former Communist Warsaw Pact country, joined the European Union last year and is a member of the US-led NATO military alliance. The close US ally commands a multinational military division in Iraq.
Subject: French News