Chirac, Blair and politics of power

Posted in Europe | 28-Jan-04 | Author: Patrick Tyler| Source: The New York Times

France opposed Iraq war to hurt British leader, book asserts

LONDON The strong opposition of President Jacques Chirac of France to the war in Iraq last spring was in part motivated by a desire to undermine Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain in a struggle for leadership of Europe, a new book asserts.

Based in part on reports from British intelligence, Blair was said to have concluded and to have confided to close aides that Chirac was "out to get him" by opposing the American- and British-led military campaign and thus seeking to isolate Blair in Europe. Blair came to believe that "the dispute over Iraq was in fact a proxy for a much more serious contest," the new account states.

The book, "Tony Blair" by Philip Stephens, will be published next month by Viking, a division of Penguin Group in the United States. Excerpts were printed in Monday editions of the Financial Times newspaper, for which Stephens is a political columnist with access to Blair and his senior aides. The assertions excerpted from the book are not attributed to on-the-record interviews either with Blair or his aides.

The intelligence reports informed the prime minister that Chirac had decided that "Blair had usurped" Chirac's position "as the natural leader of Europe," the book states.

The prime minister's official spokesman declined on Monday to address the specific assertions in the book and said that it was "not the government's policy to do book reviews." The spokesman said that Blair and Chirac had a "very good relationship" and would be meeting in February with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany. Chirac's spokeswoman, Catherine Colonna, said by e-mail: "There will be no comment on our side."

The new biography of Blair reports on the intricate nature of the triangle of power among Britain, France and Germany. It also characterizes the role of Vice President Dick Cheney as "implacably opposed" to British efforts to convince President George W. Bush to work through the UN in confronting Iraq.

Cheney scorned the notion that the United States needed international approval to remove Saddam Hussein. "Once we have victory in Baghdad, all the critics will look like fools," Cheney told a high-ranking British official in mid-2002, the book asserts.

When Chirac appeared to favor Schröder's opponent in Germany's 2002 elections, Schröder traveled to London in his first post-election trip, snubbing the French president.

"The slight was not missed by Chirac," Stephens wrote. Blair, he added, "enraged" the French leader by assaulting protectionist farm policies on the Continent during the European summit meeting in October 2002.

But, Stephens reported, Blair missed the signals of Chirac's gathering anger. In December 2002, as the UN was giving Iraq a final opportunity to declare its illicit weapons, Blair met with one of Chirac's ministers in London and told him that the "good cop, bad cop" cooperation of the United States and Europe had succeeded at the UN in getting inspectors back into Iraq.

"The hawks in Washington had been obliged to compromise, and Bush had been kept in the multilateral game," Stephens wrote, adding that Blair urged the French to "more closely" coordinate with Britain as the debate on the war advanced. But Chirac chose a path of strong opposition. Blair, the book said, regarded the French leader's strategy as an attempt to re-cement German-French cooperation and isolate Blair.

The prime minister personally lobbied party rebels who were threatening to vote against his reform bill on Tuesday, one day before the release of a potentially explosive report on the suicide of a British expert on Iraq's weapons.

The extent of Labor unrest will be seen Tuesday when members of Parliament vote on plans to make students pay more for university education. Blair could suffer his first defeat on a major policy issue over the reform. That would be humiliating, and it could trigger a confidence vote.