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Europe

Merkel to Meet Chirac Under Shadow of Nuclear Statement

As Chancellor Merkel prepares to hold talks with President Chirac on the future of the EU and the Iran crisis, German opposition parties have urged her to distance herself from France's controversial nuclear plans.

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Chirac's nuclear statement may mean his meeting with Merkel is highly charged

Merkel's meeting with Chirac in the historic town of Versailles outside Paris on Monday is meant to discuss EU integration and finances and a host of foreign policy issues including Iran's nuclear program.

But the talks are already overshadowed by President Jacques Chirac's controversial comments last week that France would be ready to use nuclear weapons against any state that carried out a terrorist attack or used weapons of mass destruction against it.

France's reiteration of the need for its costly nuclear deterrent, widely interpreted as an indirect threat against Iran which has resumed uranium enrichment, sparked criticism around the world.

German opposition wants frank words

Chirac besucht Atom-U-Boot

Chirac aboard the "Le Vigilant" nuclear submarine before he made the controversial speech

On Monday, the German opposition insisted Merkel had to take a clear stance on the issue during discussions with Chirac, which are part of the so-called Blaesheim process of informal Franco-German summits.

"Merkel must finally say clearly that the French nuclear threat will not be endorsed in Germany," Fritz Kuhn of the Green party told daily Berliner Zeitung, adding that France's comments would only exacerbate the situation in Iran.

"The German Chancellor will be well-advised to ensure that France doesn't embark on its own course when it comes to talks on Iran's nuclear program," Werner Hoyer, foreign policy spokesman of the liberal Free Democrats.

Germany's opposition Left Party too has urged Merkel to be frank during talks and to use her influence to assert Germany's position on the subject.

Iran crisis high on the agenda

Merkel's recent trips to Washington and Moscow, the risk of bird flu and the Iranian nuclear crisis will also be on the table, officials said.

France's nuclear stance has also complicated ties between the two neighbors on the issue of Iran's resumption of its nuclear program.

While both Germany and France -- together with their EU3 ally Britain –

have come out in favor of referring the Iran issue to the UN Security Council, neither side has been willing to specify what action the Council should take and whether sanctions against Iran would be an appropriate means to bring Tehran to reason.

The German government for its part said it doesn't sense a new French nuclear policy. German government spokesman Thomas Steg rejected the idea of any reference to Iran.

“We realize that some have been interpreting Chirac’s remarks as having a direct link to Iran," Steg said. "The German government doesn’t see this link. We’re convinced that France, Britain and Germany have identical views on how the Iran issue should be resolved, and we’re talking about a diplomatic solution. We have no reason to believe that France is aiming to divert from this co-coordinated policy.”

Seeking ways out of EU crisis

Monday's talks are also expected to focus on the future of the EU after last year's rejection of the bloc's proposed constitution by France and the Netherlands last year but approved by the German parliament and 12 other countries.

Chirac und Merkel

Merkel and Chirac's last meeting in December was marked by cordiality

The meeting -- their second since Merkel took office in November -- comes 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 Doutse-Blazy have both been to Berlin in the last two weeks in a bid to boost the partnership.

Angela Merkel has said she's convinced that a well-co-coordinated Franco-German relationship will give fresh impetus to towards finding a solution.

“It’s all about our deep conviction that a smooth and friendly relationship between Germany and France is not only of bilateral importance," Merkel said recently.

"Experience has shown that such a close relationship is also in the interest of the European process of integration.”

Franco-German ties hit rocky patch

But the going will not be easy.

French ruling party chief and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy has raised the idea of removing contentious parts of the constitutional treaty and implementing its core changes to the EU's operating machinery, but this approach is not favored in Germany, analysts said.

In Berlin last week de Villepin called for a "Europe of projects" such as joint action against bird flu and illegal immigration, while Chirac earlier said he had "ambitious" new proposals to make on the EU's future -- but these remain at the level of rhetoric, commentators said.

Another source of 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.

No swift answers

Those expecting Monday's talks to produce speedy solutions for the Iran conflict and European integration are in for disappointment.

Neither Berlin nor Paris are likely to make considerable progress on those issues.

With Angela Merkel at the very start of her term in office and Jacques Chirac nearing the end of his, observers believe that Europe may not get any of the decisions it needs until after the French presidential elections in spring 2007.

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