Last week's launch of the Entente Cordiale Scholarship Scheme at the British Embassy in Paris could scarcely have been more timely. Parts of the French press and political establishment, reacting to reports that Britain had sold France much of its potentially contaminated animal feed after its own 1988 sales ban, were beginning to echo the tones of their most virulent British counterparts.
With the BSE row escalating beyond all previous levels, last October's Franco-British agreement on brain exports took on a new significance. The Chequers communique on the scholarship scheme declared: "The history of this century confirms that when it matters, France and Britain choose to go ahead together."
Whether it was this confirmation that it is brains, not beef, that matter, or the knowledge that Pounds 10,000 would turn up in their bank accounts, the scholars were clearly enjoying themselves at the noticeably boeuf-free reception.
Bonding is precisely the intention of the Entente Cordiale formula. In order to forge lasting links between the scholars, a yearly directory of current scholars, sponsors, news of previous scholars and get togethers will be produced. Today's award winners may become the Franco-British crisis managers of the future. Many of the 20 scholars selected so far intend to enter careers in their respective foreign ministries or at the European Commission in Brussels.
Matthieu Bussiere, about to graduate at 22 from "Science-Po", the Institut de Sciences Politiques, is thinking of following that path. "After an MPhil next year at Queen's College, Cambridge, I want to sit the entrance exam for the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, then enter the European Commission or the French finance ministry," he explained. He could not have got to Cambridge without the scholarship and chose the Queen's College experience over the London School of Economics in order to get a completely different experience to that of "Science-Po".
Marie-Sabine Bombin is also graduating from Science-Po, also at an extremely young age - 21 - after being selected exceptionally, like Bussi re, straight from school without doing preparatory class, on the basis of brilliant baccalaureate results. She however, is going for the London School of Economics experience and a masters in European politics which she hopes will lead to a European Commission job. "If I had not got the scholarship, I would have probably gone to Germany," she said.
The Entente Cordiale scholarships is financed by private companies, to date 50 scholarships have been pledged for five years. Presiding over the French side of the scheme, former minister and European commissioner Simone Weil, contrasted the level of British and German scholarships.
"The current crisis, with so much invective and so few explanations of the other point of view, shows why we must develop this type of scheme. France and Germany have had very good scholarship systems going for many years. France and Britain must become closer," she pointed out.
Michael Desprez is going back to Oxford after being completely won over by a year at Balliol College when at the elite Ecole Normale Superieure.
"I suddenly saw people of my age, around 22, getting a far broader experience, in a system where non-academic activities - sport, music, drama, union, student magazines - all count," he said.
"I have become very disillusioned with the Agregation which I've just sat. It is out of touch with reality, it is not about thinking, just memorising and as it is very intense, that comes at the expense of the human quality of the studies."
He first applied for a Rhodes scholarship, then heard about the Entente Cordiale scheme.
Marisha Ray, one of the British students, had already made plans to go to Paris when she found out about the scheme by chance. "I just happened to look at the front page of The Times last November and it reported the Chirac-Major decision on the scholarships and said Lord Jenkins would chair the scheme, so I wrote to him," she said.
Currently at Trinity College, Cambridge, and completing a PhD in low temperature physics at the Cavendish laboratory, Ms Ray will spend her year at the Ecole des Ingenieurs doing a special management diploma where half the time is spent in a company.
She aims to enter a career in European business and marketing, in an area where her understanding of science will be "quite precious".