French press put boot into Chirac

By John Lichfield

If Jacques Chirac hoped to regain some domestic popularity through his European showdown with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the French press and opinion polls will be making grim reading.

The consensus of most commentary over the weekend was that the French President was defeated in the Battle of Brussels on the future of the European Union's constitution and its budget.

The centre-left newspaper Le Monde, in an editorial headed "Blair prend la main" (Blair takes over) pointed to the paradoxical effect of the French rejection of the European constitution three weeks ago.

Left-wing campaigners for the "no" vote in France had promised a plan B in which Paris would be able to impose a more "social", protectionist, anti-free-market Europe. In fact, the "champion of social-liberalism", Blair, had been placed in the driving seat, Le Monde said.

"The only plan B that exists ... is the plan Blair."

But much of the "praise" for Blair was ironical. His refusal to accept a freeze in the British rebate, even at a higher level than this year, was seen by the French press as a kick in the teeth to the poorer, new members in Eastern Europe who had been prepared to give up some of their own potential gains from the EU.

French officials also predicted that Blair's apparent victory in Brussels would be empty.

"If Blair had accepted the final compromise on Friday, which was extremely generous to the UK, he would have been in a position to call the tune for the rest of this year and maybe beyond," one French diplomat said. "As it is, even his allies are angry with him. He'll get nowhere."

France's Europe minister, Catherine Colonna, warned that the future of Europe could not be decided by one country wishing to impose its view. There could be no policy of "rupture" with the past, she said, only a collegiate or "consensual" decision on how to move forward.

French officials dismissed suggestions in the British press that Chirac would set out on a personal crusade to block Blair. The Elysee Palace specifically contradicted reports that the President would "snub" the first day of Blair's showpiece, the G8 summit at Gleneagles next month.

There would be no need for France to put itself in such an exposed position, the officials said. Blair had so angered the other member states that it was unnecessary.

One Paris official said Blair seemed to have gone into "messianic mode", believing he could singlehandedly transform the EU. Any attempt to appeal directly to European "peoples" over the heads of their Governments would be a farce, he predicted.

Blair will speak to the European Parliament this week, before taking over the presidency of the EU. He is expected to stress that he is not donning the mantle of Lady Thatcher by wrecking the prospects of agreement at last week's EU summit, which collapsed amid acrimony on Saturday.

Blair will stress that he is not simply following free-market conservative policies, but has been responsible for initiatives to protect the lowest paid and worst off in society. But he will make it clear he intends to crusade for economic reform during Britain's six-month presidency of the EU.


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