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There is an elephant in the room at The Swan

THERE was a chill profounde and it wasn't just the Continental beer as David Cameron took Francois Hollande down to his local pub.

BAR OF PUBLIC OPINION: Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande arrive for talks  at the Swan Inn, Oxfordshire. Picture: PA
BAR OF PUBLIC OPINION: Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande arrive for talks at the Swan Inn, Oxfordshire. Picture: PA

UK-France summits are rarely warm and cuddly affairs but this one seemed particularly frosty and did not live up to the billing that the entente was, in fact, "tres cordiale".

The atmosphere had not been eased by an initial suggestion that the summit take place at the picturesque Blenheim Palace near Oxford.

It was softly pointed out that the historic pile was named after the Battle of Blenheim, the Duke of Marlborough's famous victory over France 300 years ago.

Nor did political soundings off on either side of the Channel help.

Grant Shapps, the Tory chairman, had observed that France's economy, under Mr Hollande's careful management, had been "run into the sand" while French officials denigrated Mr Cameron's much beloved NHS as "ailing", boasting just how many more hospital beds there were on the other side of the water.

Then on the eve of the Prime Minister and President's get-together, the Elysee Palace made it crystal clear it was "very, very unlikely" France would agree to opening up the EU treaty to allow Britain to claw back powers from Brussels ahead of an in-out referendum in 2017.

At the post-bilateral press conference, Mr Hollande, asked about his host's ambition on amending the treaty, coolly replied: "For the time being, we feel revising it is not a priority."

Mr Cameron sought to play the genial host, shrugged his shoulders and said: "Of course we are not going to agree about everything. Francois is a French Socialist, I am a British Conservative. It would be odd if we agreed about everything."

The mood was not helped when a British journalist finally mentioned the elephant in the room - Mr Hollande's troubled love life - using Fleet Street's renowned subtle approach.

"Do you think your private life has made France an international joke, are you still having an affair with Julie Gayet and do you wish she was here?"

After the President removed his head from the ceiling, he quietly replied: "I'm afraid I decline to answer."

Meantime, Mr Cameron sought to put a brave face on his own humiliation - his retreat in face of a Tory rebellion on the Immigration Bill - insisting its broad thrust, including denying migrants free NHS care, was the right one.

After signing deals on developing combat drones and for anti-ship missiles, the two leaders left the RAF base at Brize Norton for the relative comfort of The Swan Inn, a boutique Cotswolds gastropub.

On the menu, apart from inconclusive talk about EU reform, were potted shrimps, rainbow trout and apple and raisin crumble.

The Swan Inn, it was revealed, was used for the famous elopement scene between Lady Sybil and the chauffeur Branson in TV's Downton Abbey. But there appeared little signs of affection or even bonhomie between the pub's two latest patrons; their political differences appear as wide as the Channel.

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