From the Times:
MARTIAL headlines filled the air in France yesterday as the Prime Minister landed to do battle with the leader of Britain’s ancient adversary.
“Le Choc Blair-Chirac”, announced the television news. Radio and newspapers hauled out a famous quotation: “Messieurs les anglais, tirez le premiers!” The invitation to shoot first was made by the French commander to the Duke of Cumberland’s men at the battle of Fontenoy in 1745.
The army of King Louis XV defeated les rosbifs then, but beyond headlines there was little Gallic self-confidence on display yesterday when the two old European powers engaged in their umpteenth replay of the 100 years war.
As M Chirac leaned on Mr Blair to abandon le cheque britannique at the European Union summit in Brussels tomorrow, French thoughts were turning towards a southern suburb of the Belgian capital — Waterloo. The reminder of the Anglo-French showdown of June 18, 1815 was partly the fault of Dominique de Villepin, M Chirac’s new Prime Minister. He drew mockery last week with a promise to revive France’s ailing economy in 100 days. Les Cent Jours is French shorthand for Napoleon Bonaparte’s adventures between Elba and Brussels, where he was halted by the British and Prussians.
This time the Germans are on the French side, with Chancellor Schröder, albeit politically enfeebled, calling for British sacrifice.
Britain may look isolated in the EU, but in the view of French politicians and commentators, Mr Blair has by far the stronger hand. Freshly re-elected, Mr Blair impresses a Gallic establishment that has been sorely rattled by the voters’ mutiny against the Constitution and which has little faith in M Chirac’s ability to pull off a Fontenoy.
“We are watching a virile arm-wrestling match between Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair, but does the President have the means to stand up to perfidious Albion?” asked a commentator on France Inter’s breakfast programme yesterday. “What is the weight of a French President humiliated by the voters facing a freshly re-elected Tony Blair?” he wondered.
LCI television news said that M Chirac could not expect Britain to give up its rebate while refusing to reform farms spending. “It will be difficult for France to avoid paying the political and economic price at the European summit of its ‘No’ to the European constitution on May 29,” it said.
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, chief author of the doomed Constitution, gave his verdict on the referendum for the first time yesterday, blaming M Chirac for bungling the campaign. “France has reinforced its negative image in Europe as an arrogant, untrustworthy country,” said the former President.
M Chirac’s offensive is seen as a ploy to divert attention from the referendum debacle. “The real battlefield between Paris and London is not the Constitution,” said l’Humanité, the Communist Party daily. “Contrary to the historic quote, it is the French who have shot first by demanding an end to the British rebate. The British have shot back fast (on the Common Agriculture Policy)...
For Jacques Chirac, this showdown with perfidious Albion is the ideal opportunity to duck the issue.” The President wanted to win public support by whipping up a quarrel with France’s historic enemy, defending the “French Social Model” against British free-market doctrines, said l’Humanité.
M Chirac is depicting himself as the champion of the compassionate French social model in a struggle with the supposedly cruel “modèle anglo-saxon” embodied by the Constitution — at least in the view of “no” voters. The CAP, invented by France, is part of the French model.
The trouble for M Chirac is that the “non” has served as shock therapy, forcing France to examine the weakness of its cherished welfare system of tight regulation and high taxes. Patrick Devedjian, a former Minister who is close to Nicolas Sarkozy, M Chirac’s chief political rival, said:
“The French social model is not a model because no-one wants to emulate it. It is not social because it causes record unemployment.”
In similar vein, l’Express magazine said that France was fooling itself if it thought anyone wanted the French model. “This is the cruel truth: Because we were not paying attention, there is no French Social model any more.”
In sarcastic mood, Pascal Bruckner, a leading novelist, suggested in le Figaro yesterday that France should turn itself into a giant theme park where tourists would come to learn how to strike and to hate “the horror that is the free market”.
This won’t exactly hurt Blair’s domestic popularity.
Agricultural subsidies - ie. the artificial propping up of industries producing goods that nobody wants - account for about 40% of the total EU budget, or 47.4 billion euros
France, one of 25 member states, gets a quarter of that. Farmers represent just 4% of the total French workforce.
M. Chirac says: “The time has come for our British friends to understand that they must now make a gesture of solidarity.”
M. Chirac has un nerve.