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Blair Tries to Shore Up Relations With France

British Prime Minister Tony Blair ended a visit to France Thursday, aimed at shoring up cross-channel relations which took a beating during the Iraq war. Differences remain, despite Mr. Blair's apparently upbeat meetings with France's president and prime minister.

First there was the ice-breaking handshake, just over a week ago during the G-8 summit in France, between President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac. Next came British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who ended a quick visit to Paris, after having breakfast with his French counterpart, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

The night before Mr. Blair dined at the Elysee palace with Mr. Chirac, who last year called Britain's prime minister badly behaved, during an argument over European farm subsidies. Iraq injected new tensions in British-French relations, with London signing on to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and France leading opposition against the conflict.

But Mr. Chirac and Mr. Blair are now trying to paper over the differences. The two leaders told reporters Wednesday night their two countries must work together. Mr. Chirac claimed there was a so-called convergence of views on administering a future, expanded European Union, despite the fact that Paris and London have staked out different positions on a future EU administrative framework, not to mention European defense capabilities.

On Thursday, Mr. Blair continued the reconciliation effort, praising Prime Minister Raffarin for his personal courage in pushing controversial social reforms.

But not everybody is convinced that the bitter differences are now history. Former French Prime Minister Alain Juppe suggested Thursday that profound disagreements still divide France from the U.S. and British views of the world.

Mr. Juppe, who heads the Union for a Popular Movement Party, Mr. Chirac's party, told British and American reporters that Anglo-French differences include whether the world should be dominated by a single power - the United States - or by several.

The French government also remains deeply skeptical, Mr. Juppe said, about the wisdom of toppling Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, or the likelihood that, as a result, democracy will spread from Baghdad to other parts of the Middle East.

And Mr. Juppe was surprisingly blunt in virtually ruling out chances Iraq previously possessed weapons of mass destruction. He maintained Washington's real priority, all along, had been to reshape the political landscape of the Middle East.

Mr. Blair, in particular, is facing rising questions at home over whether he deliberately overstated Iraq's defense capabilities. That criticism - which has also been leveled against the Bush administration - has been extensively reported in the French press.