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UK, France celebrate Entente Cordiale

PARIS, Jan 12 (AFP) – British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was due on Monday to launch a year of events marking the centenary of the Franco-British Entente Cordiale, using a speech in Paris to breathe warmth back into the currently frosty cross-channel relationship.

A hundred years after the bilateral accord that heralded an unprecedented era of cooperation between the two countries, Straw was to tell his audience that tensions over Iraq, the US and the Europe should not mask the tight bond that still exists.

“Any relationship, especially one of neighbours with more than a thousand years of interlinked history, is bound to be complex and involve differences and disagreements,” he was due to say in a speech, according to an advance copy of the text obtained by AFP.

“But our differences can too easily be exaggerated. This year’s Entente Cordiale celebrations are a chance to remind ourselves that what unites us is much more than what divides us,” he was to tell an intellectual club called the “Two Worlds Review”.

The Entente Cordiale was a colonial-era agreement signed in London in April 1904 with the aim of settling long-standing disputes between Britain and France in regions such as Morocco, Egypt, west and central Africa and Newfoundland.

Sealed by a state visit to Paris by King Edward VII, it was acclaimed as the end of centuries of warfare and rivalry and the start of a new alliance that was to bear fruit during the first and second world wars.

Among this year’s commemorative events are state visits by Queen Elizabeth to France in April and by President Jacques Chirac to Britain in the autumn; a visit by the French aircraft-carrier Charles De Gaulle to Portsmouth; British participation in the July 14 parade in Paris; charity rugby and football matches; and a rock concert featuring stars from both countries.

In his speech Straw evokes the constant day-to-day exposure between the two sides of the English channel as evidence of a deep relationship that can withstand the difficulties of the moment.

“A quarter of a million French people live in the UK today. In the other direction, at least 100,000 Britons have homes in France, the largest settlement since the Hundred Years War, bringing cricket and cream teas to the Dordogne and Normandy,” he says. “This is Europe at work.”

The Entente Cordiale centenary comes after a year in which Franco-British relations have plunged to a low nor seen since late president Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s entry into the Common Market – precursor of the European Union – in 1967.

Chirac and Prime Minister Tony Blair fell out over reform of the EU’s agricultural policy at the end of 2002 – causing the postponement of a joint summit – and then found themselves on opposite sides of the bitter international division over the war in Iraq.

London accused Paris of destroying the chances of United Nations authorisation for an invasion to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, while the French government accused Blair of providing diplomatic cover for what it sees as an irresponsible neo-conservative administration in the US.

In his speech Straw glosses over these differences, playing up instead European defence initiatives in Macedonia and the Democratic Republic of Congo; cooperation within the UN Security Council; and the successful mission with Germany to persuade Iran to open up its nuclear programme to inspection.

“No-one would expect two great nations like ours to agree on everything. But we can achieve even more together than we already do – and this year gives us a great opportunity to make that a reality,” Straw says.


                                Subject: France news