Merkel to visit France

Angela Merkel's visit to France on Monday could bring crucial accord with Jacques Chirac,or underline the differences between Germany's new chancellor and France's veteran president. Their ties will be vital in the debates over Iran's nuclear program and Europe's future. Iran and the EU are expected to dominate the talks in Versailles, to the west of Paris, the latest in a series of informal meetings that Chirac launched with Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder.

Merkel has impressed the world in recent weeks with her consensus-building and pragmatic, balanced diplomacy. Now it's Chirac's turn to impress her, and to keep her committed to preserving the Franco-German axis that has underpinned the European project.

Merkel has worried some in France by reaching out to the United States and Britain, in an effort to heal the trans-Atlantic rift over Iraq. She has also sought to de-emphasize the close relationships with France and Russia that Schroeder favored.

"At first there was a bit of nostalgia for Schroeder" and resistance toward Merkel among French politicians and the public, said Susanne Nies, of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "She was considered too pro-American, too pro-anglophone. But with time we came to understand that she's very open toward France, too," even if she is not as cozy with Chirac as Schroeder was, Nies said.

Nies suggested that Merkel could play an important mediating role on Iran and on the future of the EU constitution. Iran has dominated both countries' diplomatic activity for the past two weeks, as France, Germany and Britain are leading European efforts to discourage Iran from nuclear activities that some fear hide plans to develop nuclear weapons. The trio, with the United States, is pushing to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council over its resumption of uranium enrichment.

Meanwhile, France's nuclear program has come under criticism from several countries since Chirac warned last week that France could use nuclear arms to counter a state-sponsored terrorist attack. Iran's Foreign Ministry denounced Chirac's comments as "unacceptable," and state-run television said the warning contradicted international treaties.

While German officials played down Chirac's speech, Germany's opposition said it could threaten European credibility in the dispute with Iran.

A leading figure in Germany's governing Social Democratic Party, Peter Struck, said in a radio interview Sunday that "nuclear strikes really are not the right means" to fight terrorism. Another thorny issue likely to arise in talks is a new reduced restaurant sales tax that France has championed but that appears to be slipping off the EU agenda. EU finance ministers are preparing to strike a deal on the long-running value-added tax row this week, reports the AP. N.U.