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Europe

Merkel Dismisses French Threat in Cordial Meeting With Chirac

French and German leaders Jacques Chirac and Angela Merkel met Monday in the historic town of Versailles outside Paris, where discussions focused on the future of the EU and efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear program.

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The only time Merkel pointed the finger was at a journalist during the press conference

The talks -- part of the so-called Bläsheim process of informal Franco-German summits -- also covered Chirac's reformulation last week of France's nuclear defense policy as well as French hopes, opposed by Germany, to cut value added tax for the restaurant trade.

President Chirac greeted the chancellor early evening at the prefecture -- or governor's office -- in Versailles, which served as headquarters for the German emperor Wilhelm II after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.

Merkel had earlier inaugurated an exhibition called "Splendors of the Court of Saxony" at the 17th-century palace of Versailles, former residence of French kings.

At a news conference before dinner, Chirac said the two leaders had prepared the ground for two major EU meetings: a ministerial council in March where energy will be the main theme, and the biannual summit in June which will focus on the institutional future of the 25-member bloc.

Sensitive time for Franco-German relations

Angela Merkel in Frankreich Jacques Chirac

The talks were cordial despite differences of opinion.

Monday's bilateral came at a sensitive time for Franco-German relations, with the two governments struggling to reignite their historic sense of purpose at the heart of the EU, commentators said.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy have both been to Berlin in the last two weeks in a bid to boost the partnership.

But with Merkel at the very start of her term in office and Chirac nearing the end of his, "Europe may not get any of the decisions it needs till after the French presidential elections" in spring 2007, said Sylvie Goulard of the Centre for International Research (CERI) in Paris.

Divided on next step for EU constitution

Considerable uncertainty hangs over the fate of the EU constitutional treaty which was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands last year but approved by the German parliament and 12 other countries.

Sources close to the Elysee said that while France would be willing to preserve parts of the text and discard others, Merkel's view was that the constitution should not be broken up piecemeal.

Another source of potential discord is France's wish -- enshrined in a Chirac election promise -- to bring down value added tax for the hotel and restaurant trade to 5.5 percent, an idea vigorously opposed by Berlin.

Speaking at the press conference, Chirac conceded that France was unlikely to get its way when the matter is voted on at an EU finance ministers' meeting Tuesday.

Chirac laughs, Merkel dismisses "rift" over nuclear threat

Angela Merkel in Frankreich Jacques Chirac

Merkel missed the chance to publicly denounce the threat in favor of smiles and handshakes.

Some in Germany also reacted coolly to Chirac's speech on Thursday in which he for the first time raised the threat of targeting French nuclear weapons on rogue states that back terrorism.

He laughed and smiled when a German reporter asked about his comments during the news conference. "There has been no lowering of the nuclear threshold," Chirac said. "No one in Germany should be the least bit worried. Under no circumstances are nuclear weapons battle weapons."

Merkel said she found nothing to criticize in the French position.

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