French Ties With Britain Warmer After Currency Crisis

BRITAIN and France have set themselves the goal of achieving closer relations - and the opening next May of the Channel Tunnel linking the two nations symbolizes their drive toward amity.

But British officials say entente between London and Paris is likely to be accompanied by a cooling of France's friendship with Germany, which has been a cornerstone of European unity since the 1960s.

Signs of improving Anglo-French ties were apparent even before Germany's Bundesbank angered the French government July 29 by refusing to cut interest rates and so triggered the European Community's Aug. 1 decision to order major reforms in its exchange rate mechanism (ERM).

At a summit meeting in London last week President Francois Mitterrand and British Prime Minister John Major agreed upon measures aimed at achieving close future consultation between their two governments. They also ended uncertainty about the opening date for the undersea rail link that will connect Britain and France.

Mr. Mitterrand and Queen Elizabeth II will inaugurate the Channel Tunnel, known as the Chunnel, in an official ceremony on May 6, 1994. A few weeks before that, British officials confirmed, the Chunnel will start carrying two-way freight traffic between England and France.

More important, a British government source says, is a "refreshing new tendency" on the part of the French to deal in a "genuinely bilateral way" on matters of mutual concern. In the past, the source says, French government officials had left the impression that dealings with Britain were conducted on the basis that "relations between Paris and Bonn came first."

At the end of their talks Mr. Major and Mitterrand announced that in the future, bilateral contacts between British and French Cabinet ministers would be "more regular and more intimate."

Developments since the London meeting have given both countries added reason to work more closely together, a British government source says. France has now experienced the kind of treatment by the Bundesbank that forced Britain to quit the ERM last September and devalue the pound.

British ministers stress that the formula arrived at over the weekend to make the ERM more flexible would stimulate bilateral relations between EC countries.

Norman Lamont, the former chancellor of the exchequer, appeared to reflect British government thinking when he declared: "The Maastricht Treaty is, in effect, redundant." European governments should now "adopt a more practical agenda" in which two-way contacts between them would be more important, Mr. Lamont added.

An eruption of bitterness between the Paris and Bonn governments generated by the Bundesbank's refusal to come to the aid of the stricken French currency was widely reported in yesterday's British newspapers.

In such an atmosphere it is perhaps not surprising that Britain is looking forward to improved ties with France, its ally in both world wars and a traditional counterweight to German power in continental Europe.

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