French Dominique de Villepin premier to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel, explain France's EU vision

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was to meet Wednesday with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, to explain the French vision of Europe's future _ and his country's rejection of the European Union constitution.

President Jacques Chirac has already signaled France's intention to suggest ways of pushing the EU forward in 2006 and overcome the French and Dutch rejections of the constitution in referendums last year.

Chirac will hold a meeting "very shortly" of selected ministers to prepare French initiatives on Europe ahead of the next summit in March, government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope said Wednesday.

Before meeting with Merkel during his half-day visit, Villepin is to make a speech at Berlin's Humboldt University spelling out the French view of Europe's future and explaining why his country voted down the constitution, the prime minister's office said.

France and Germany, the EU's two largest countries, for decades provided the impetus to European integration. Chirac met with the new German chancellor in Berlin in December. The two countries' finance ministers are due to meet in Berlin Thursday, the AP reported.

Asked about a long-standing disagreement over French demands for lower value-added tax on hotels and restaurants, Finance Ministry spokesman Stefan Olbermann said Germany "is certainly interested in a compromise" but did not elaborate.

A.M.