The two men met on Friday night, emphasising their shared vision of Europe.

This, said Chirac, should be a Europe that was "both political and social, an organised Europe, a Europe founded on solidarity, common policies and a move of harmonisation".

Both leaders take a different view from that of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who will be their host later at an informal meeting of European Union heads of state and government near London, and from that of Schroeder's successor-in-waiting Angela Merkel, although her room for manoeuvre may be limited by the constraints of a coalition government.

Schroeder said France and Germany "will fight against those who want to sacrifice" a European model that combines "economic efficiency and social cohesion".

Any German government knows or will soon learn that progress in Europe is only possible if it is based on close Franco-German cooperation, he said.

Although Schroeder will not be replaced immediately as chancellor by Christian Democrat leader Merkel and will attend the summit later this month, it was an occasion full of emotion and public statements of friendship.

Friendship

"Everyone knows the esteem, the respect but also the friendship
I have for him," Chirac said.

"Let us not be too sentimental, or we shall have to get out our handkerchiefs"

Gerhard Schroeder,
German chancellor

Speaking of the great admiration he had for the "extraordinary work" done by Schroeder, Chirac said: "The chancellor, his wife and his two daughters are at home in France and in Paris, and it is always with the greatest pleasure that my family and I receive them."

The two leaders have worked together for seven years, since the election of Schroeder in 1998, in a continuation of the Franco-German alliance that has helped shape the politics of Europe for 50 years.

"Let us not be too sentimental, or we shall have to get out our handkerchiefs," Schroeder, whose plans are unclear, said jokingly.

He paid tribute to the French president, saying that their "personal, friendly" relationship had made it possible to "solve more easily certain difficulties".