Tony Blair's options for going to war on Iraq were shrinking last night after Jacques Chirac publicly pledged that France would veto an early second United Nations resolution explicitly authorizing military action.
"There is no need for a second resolution today, which France would have no choice but to oppose," Mr Chirac insisted as he arrived for the European Union's emergency summit in Brussels. He called it "the worst solution".
But Mr Blair, who is determined to avoid being provoked into a worse EU split over Iraq, repeated what he and his aides have said for weeks; that time is still needed to answer the key test: "Is Saddam co-operating or not?"
"The most important thing is to send a signal of strength, not weakness, because that is the language Saddam will understand," he said. "That is also our best chance of avoiding war."
There is dispute among military experts as to how ready even the US is for a land war in Iraq in the next few weeks - unless Washington is willing to risk trying to seize Baghdad and "decapitate" the regime.
France's position dashed already slim hopes that the EU would be able to bridge the gap between those who back impatient US rhetoric and those demanding more time for UN weapons inspections.
On top of the challenge of peace protests around the world, it intensified pressure on Mr Blair. He has insisted all along that a second security council resolution is desirable, though not necessary. No 10 still believes it will get one.
Faced with France's flat refusal to go back to the UN at this stage, the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, appeared to be moving to the government's fallback position, saying that resolution 1441 "gives us the authority we need".
No 10 was also adamant that the prime minister's new stress on the moral and humanitarian arguments for removing Saddam Hussein to ease the suffering of the Iraqi people does not represent a hardening of policy towards "regime change" in Baghdad.
But it does appear to offer President Saddam two choices: despite Downing Street's blood-curdling description of the Iraqi dictator as a man "who runs his country like a butcher's shop", he could be allowed to stay in power if he complies with 1441. But if the US leads a coalition to war without UN sanction - or restraint - he will be removed.
Faced with the weekend's mass protests, No 10 again said: "There is another side to the moral balance sheet. There is no moral monopoly."
In Brussels, Mr Straw conceded ministers should "listen carefully" to the protesters' message, but he said people taking part had different concerns; some would support war if all else failed.
As if to confirm that claim on a day of mixed messages, Germany signaled that it might back war "as a last resort".
Foreign ministers put a positive spin on their talks, described by Mr Straw as "serious and constructive", but left the hard graft to heads of government, who were meeting Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general.
The EU, facing embarrassing disarray over the crisis - and a potentially mortal blow to its aspirations to play a coherent role on the world stage - is divided into three camps.
The group of hawks, led by Britain, includes Spain, Italy, Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands. The doves are France, Germany, Belgium Luxembourg, Greece and Austria. Ireland, Sweden and Finland are somewhere in between.
"We all know that this is about the question of Iraq, but it's also about the question of Europe," Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, said.
Greece, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, called the summit to try to heal divisions after the highly damaging row in Nato. But many feel it will only serve to highlight the rift.
The French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, said UN inspectors should be given more time and that Britain, Italy and Spain, were taking "strictly an American line".
As grassroots mutterings grow against Mr Blair's leadership, leftwing MPs stepped up their demands for abandonment of New Labour's "market-based and militaristic" policies and promised to organize an anti-war conference next month.
"It is time for party members to take back our party from the New Labour clique that have hijacked it," said John McDonnell MP, chairman of the Campaign Group.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003