A report in the French newspaper Liberation on l’affair Barrot gives some insight into why Hans-Gert Pöttering, president of the conservative EPP group, leapt so quickly to the defence of the embattled transport commissioner when he came under attack from Nigel Farage.
In the piece, headed "Toubon to the rescue of the commissioner attacked by an MEP", it appears that MEP Jacques Toubon, on hearing the attack, went into a red mist of rage (actually: "un zébulon rogue de rage", a "zébulon" being a cartoon character with a spring in place of his legs), leapt out of his seat and turned on Pöttering, gesturing so violently that some thought he might hit him.
And who is this Jacques Toubon? Well, apart from being a member of the UMP – Chirac’s party – he was in the minister of justice in the 1995 Juppé government which piloted through the terms of Chirac’s general pardon for politicians who had broken the election rules. And it was, according to the Liberation report, as a result of a briefing by Toubon that Pöttering claimed that, "Never, at any time, did Jacques Barrot commit an offence."
On the European Parliamentary Labour web site, there is much crowing that, in response to the attack, "the mutual applause, back slapping and agreement on policy between the French Fascist party of Jean Marie Le Pen and UKIP became all to clear." Le Pen, the site continues, "could hardly contain his enthusiasm for Mr Farage's vicious personal attacks on individual Commissioners and his undiluted xenophobic attitudes to the EU."
However, from the Liberation report, we read that, while there was "outcry on the right", the main reaction came with "gibes on the left" where MEPs, to the discomfort of Toubon, imitated the noise of a helicopter.
This is a reference to Toubon’s action in 1996, while still justice minister, of hiring a helicopter in the Himalayas to search for the public prosecutor of the Départements Essonne in southern Paris, who was on holiday there. Toubon was desperate to ask the prosecutor to instruct his own deputy to stop releasing incriminating documents about Xavière Tibéri, wife of the then mayor of Paris - and a pal of Chirac - in an ongoing investigation on vote-rigging and corruption. (See: here and here).
Clearly, there is much bad blood between the socialists and the right-wing UMP on this. But where this leaves us is hard to predict, although there is a possibility now that l'affair Barrot will be subsumed in the vicious in-fighting between French political factions, and become a cause celèbre.
Farage may have lit the touch paper, but this may turn out to be a bomb rather than a firecracker. On the other hand, he may have poked a stick into a hornets' nest.
For more about these frightful Frogs, read the posting on Jonathan Lockhart's Blog.