LONDON — BRITAIN is wooing France - and its old adversary across the English Channel may be ready to reciprocate.
Concerned about fraying relations with Washington and united Germany's growing power, British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd is seeking to improve a relationship often marked down the centuries by prickliness and mistrust.
Mr. Hurd wants ultimately to make Britain fully committed to a separate European ``pillar'' of the NATO alliance as a way for Europeans to take more responsibility for their own defense.
But he is already being sniped at by Euroskeptics in the ruling Conservative Party who say France is not to be trusted and that the United States should remain Britain's principal ally.
Hurd spelled out his thinking to British and French politicians and diplomats in London on Oct. 24. He pointed to the cooperation Britain and France had already established in the United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia, and in the Gulf war.
He said he wants to build on this progress by getting French support for a series of cross-Channel military initiatives.
British defense officials say the first move - a plan for a combined air force group to coordinate operations outside the NATO area - will be discussed at a Franco-British summit in Chartres, France, later this month. The plan will likely be adopted, the officials say.
More significant is Hurd's evident support for British participation in a European army within NATO.
At a NATO meeting in January, President Clinton suggested that future US commitment to NATO could depend heavily on Europe's willingness to handle its own security.
NATO leaders interpreted this to mean that the US was now prepared to support the concept of a European pillar.
Since World War II, Britain has shunned any policy undermining its ``special relationship'' with the US. But many now see the potential gain from cooperation with Britain's European neighbors. And British officials privately admit that Prime Minister John Major's dealings with Washington have cooled since Mr. Clinton entered the White House.
Hurd, in his speech, advocated a ``new special relationship'' with France and stressed the need for ``an effective European defense.'' This could be achieved if Britain and France ``build on the substantial cooperation we already have,'' he said.
Britain also wishes to curry favor with France to dilute German influence within the European Union. Germany and France already cooperate in a largely symoblic ``Eurocorps,'' outside the NATO framework, with a mixed-nationality command structure.
Britain sees the Eurocorps as bound to be dominated in the long run by the Germans and considers friendship with France a springboard for a broader role in European defense.
Mr. Major agrees with Hurd on the initiative. But other influential Conservatives are hostile to chummy relations with France.
Bill Cash, a senior Conservative member of Parliament (MP) and a vocal foe of European integration, says the foreign secretary was wrong to think in terms of Franco-British cooperation rather than rely on ``our most trustworthy ally, the United States.''
Conservative MP Iain Duncan-Smith told the House of Commons on Oct. 27 that many Conservatives worried that membership in a European army would bring an ``unwelcome'' degree of European integration.
Former Defense Minister Alan Clark accused Hurd of wanting to befriend a ``devious, nationalistic, and single-minded'' country.
The London Times on Oct. 28 called Hurd's initiative a ``charm offensive,'' saying Hurd ``should have no illusions about the magnitude of the task of persuasion he has set himself.''