Gerhard Chirac: The French View

Now that we’ve already covered German reporting and commentary on Jacques Chirac acting to represent German interests during the second day of the European summit in Brussels (today, in fact), let’s look at the French side. Another day’s passing has even allowed the time for more detailed, nuanced coverage to spring up in the French press, and so I concentrate on these recent articles.

(By the way, of the articles on the subject from earlier in the week, I would only really recommend the coverage by Le Monde, and that only because it goes into remarkable detail about just why Schröder and Joschka Fischer found it desirable to be back in Berlin on Friday. Those interested in the labor-market reforms currently before the Bundestag, who don’t possess the German to go search for coverage in the German press but can do French, should check this one out.)

The prize for most striking coverage must be awarded to the front-page spread published today by Le Figaro, featuring a picture of the big bear-hug between the two yesterday, just prior to the summit’s formal commencement. In the final analysis, the accompanying article concludes, this Franco-German entente is no surprise since the French and German positions on a whole range of important issues – the reaction to American/British actions in Iraq, defense, their desire for a European economic “initiative for growth,” and their “leave well enough alone” attitude toward the product of the Constitutional Convention – are either identical or very close. Still, it’s not as if Berlin and Paris have not clashed in the relatively recent past, such as at the European summits in Berlin and Nice, in 1999 and 2000 respectively. How long will this honeymoon necessarily last? And even while it goes on, it inspires fears and resentments among other EU members (and future members) about an overbearing French-German axis (which does, after all, account for about half of the GDP of the entire EU) bullying everyone else.

Le Figaro also has a commentary by Charles Lambroschini, entitled Un même regard, or “Eye-to-Eye.” It start out spectacularly – Could it be that one day there will be a Franco-German confederation on the pattern of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of 1867-1918? – but then gets rather more pedestrian. Lambroschini’s point is that, while Franco-German agreement is hardly close enough to justify the proverbial Françallemand, it is rather tight these days – and not from sheer opportunism, as the members of the Coalition in Iraq liked to claim, but rather because the fundamental interests of the two countries have truly converged. Germany used to be in the US’ pocket, diplomatically speaking – but that was when a different political generation was in charge in Bonn. Now a generation is pre-eminent in Berlin that was born after the War and so doesn’t feel responsible for it, nor particularly grateful to America for its 1944-45 liberation. (“Before they liberated the Germans,” Lambroschini notes, “they vanquished them.” Well, yes – and the Americans/British/Allies also liberated France, M. Lambroschini.) In contrast to his colleague who wrote the lead article (Pierre Bocev, Le Figaro’s Berlin correspondent), he does not ask when the honeymoon is likely to end.

The article in today’s Libération, “Gerhard Chirac” in the Limelight at Brussels, takes a different view. While it does describe the antics of the Chirac-Schröder tag-team on the summit’s first day, it does so in a way that makes you wonder whatever happened to the discussions on the draft EU Constitution that were supposed to be at the top of the agenda: Chirac and Schröder taking their leave of the European Council meeting early to get on the phone with Vladimir Putin to discuss the latest American proposal for a UN Security Council resolution on Iraq (they all decided to support it); Chirac and Schröder caucusing separately with Tony Blair and Belgium’s Guy Verhofstadt to discuss a European defense initiative (related to that “gang of four” Brussels summit of late last April).

Besides that, it seems that Chirac has a great career ahead of him as a “rent-a-politician” if he wants. The singular lack of progress on the draft Constitution of the first day led to talk about yet another summit for mid-November, an “informal” one this time, a suggestion which doesn’t thrill some EU politicians, among whom Luxembourgois prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker; he thought aloud about getting Jacques Chirac to sit in for him. And Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, who apparently has had to deal lately with a loud and demanding Chamber of Deputies, has also spoken (presumably not seriously) about sending Chirac to stand in for him there. (Hopefully I can bring you more about this lack of progress during the Brussel summit’s first day. Some EU heads-of-government – such as Harry Potter look-alike Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch premier – were really wondering what in the hell they were doing there; Schröder might be even cleverer than we think in managing to skip out.)

For once, a interesting addition to the debate is contributed by Le Parisien (Chirac Speaks Schröder – yes, that’s what the headline means), a newspaper that I don’t often cover because it usually doesn’t have much interesting to say. Le Parisien goes further into the idea of this Schröder-replacement by Chirac being a sign of the emergence of that Franco-German bloc within the EU, determined to push its weight around. Indeed, the “Old Europe – New Europe” distinction, first raised by Donald Rumsfeld and so widely ridiculed, might be coming true after all; the dividing line went straight down this seam when it came to reactions to American designs on Iraq, and it’s doing the same on the issue of the Constitution (France/Germany: don’t mess with the draft; smaller/new members: we’ve got a lot of changes in mind), and of course on the issue of the euro’s Stability Pact, where Germany and France are now united in their defiance of it while smaller/new EU members would rather see everybody observe it, not just those EU members who aren’t powerful enough to get away with such defiance.

(This raises another interesting side issue: The attitudes of Germany and France towards violating the Stability Pact in fact used to be different, in that the Germans were willing to show themselves feeling guilty about it while the French were not. Now it seems that they’re the same, and in a clever way: Whereas before the focus among the rest of the EU on applying punishment for this violation was on France, because of this unrepentant French attitude (see €S coverage here), now such a “divide-and-conquer” strategy will no longer work. Germany and France are basically saying, “You want to punish someone [i.e. levy fines] for violating the Stability Pact, you’d better punish us both!” – and you know that will never happen, not when you’re talking about really the two most important countries in the EU. It’s no surprise, then, that the latest news on this front has featured statements from Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Pedro Solbes – who apparently is walking point on this issue – giving the violators more time and scope to get their fiscal houses in order, i.e. a backdown on the part of the Commission. I’ve found a number of interesting articles on this issue en passant while gathering material for the “Gerhard Chirac” theme of this entry; too bad I don’t have time presently to apply the full €S treatment and discuss them at greater length.)

By the way, according to Le Parisien at least one British spokesman, one Tom Kelly, has tried to pour cold water on this whole Schröder-replacement thing. It’s not like it hasn’t been done before, he claims; diplomats and politicians from the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) used to stand in for each other all the time. And that Le Figaro lead article does mention that, at a recent EU foreign ministers’ meeting, the same sort of switch happened but in reverse: French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin had to leave early, so he made it plain that in his absence Joschka Fischer would speak for France.

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