French accuse Tony Blair of ‘Soviet-style' propaganda in run-up to Iraq war

Paul Waugh, Deputy Political Editor

Tony Blair was accused by the French government of “Soviet-style” black propaganda in the run-up to the Iraq war, secret memos obtained by the Iraq inquiry have found.

The Chilcot committee has obtained confidential phone records showing that then foreign secretary Jack Straw was told days before the crunch eve-of-war Commons vote not to misrepresent the French position on the need for UN approval.

The row began after Mr Blair seized on remarks by French president Jacques Chirac on 10 March 2003, that he would not back a second UN resolution authorising war in Iraq “whatever the circumstances”.

Mr Blair said the French were making clear they would use their Security Council veto “no matter what”. His claim was crucial in persuading wavering Labour backbenchers that the UN route was no longer possible and that the war had to go ahead.

A week later, after Mr Straw told MPs that the French had “ensured” the UN could not act, Parliament voted for the invasion. But the Iraq inquiry has obtained records that show the French were furious at the way President Chirac's words had been twisted.

Former foreign minister Dominic de Villepin phoned Mr Straw on 13 March 2003, to complain that Mr Blair had tried to blame the French for the diplomatic deadlock.

Mr de Villepin said far from signalling a veto, President Chirac was stating that at that time, without a further report from UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, there was no chance of a second resolution. The French embassy in London complained to the Foreign Office that Downing Street had employed “Soviet-style disinformation” to pave the way for the conflict.

The inquiry has also obtained documents suggesting that No 10 and the Bush White House agreed on 12 March to “blame the French” for blocking UN moves to get Saddam Hussein to disarm. Gordon Brown is now set to be quizzed about the issue when he gives evidence to the Chilcot panel later this month.

According to Robin Cook's memoirs, Mr Brown told a Cabinet meeting on 13 March that “the message that must go out from this Cabinet is that we pin the blame on France for its isolated refusal to agree in the Security Council”.

Inquiry member Sir Roderic Lyne yesterday asked Mr Straw: “On 11, 12 and 13 March, did we not get a number of messages from France arguing that we had misinterpreted Chirac's words, that he was referring to not voting for this resolution at this time, and the French were arguing this should not be interpreted as meaning that the French were never going to vote for a resolution?”

Mr Straw said the contacts took place, but President Chirac's words ensured other Security Council members were less likely to back a second resolution.