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Berlusconi jokes about war with France

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BRUSSELS, Mar 24 (Reuters) Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi joked about declaring war on Frace today and pretended to massage President Jacques Chirac, making light of a clash between their two countries over energy mergers.

Berlusconi, leaving for the second day of a European Union summit, told reporters: ''There is no news, unless you journalists want us to declare war on France.'' Inside the conference room, he walked up to the seated Chirac and put his hands on the French president's shoulders in what looked like a neck-rub, prompting a startled laugh.

Tension between France and Italy has risen since the Paris government engineered a hasty merger between state-owned Gaz de France and private French utility Suez to fend off a feared bid from Italy's Enel.

Diplomats had expected Berlusconi, trailing centre-left ex-European Commission President Romano Prodi in opinion polls ahead of an April 9-10 general election, to use the summit to attack the French action.

In the event, he focused his public comments on attacks against Prodi and insisted that he would confound the polls and win re-election.

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