Wednesday, February 09, 2005

France in turmoil?

One wonders what Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice made of it all. She told President Chirac and repeated to Foreign Minister Barnier that the time had come “to turn over a new page” in the relationship between Paris and Washington.

Upon which Michel Barnier solemnly announced:
"I'd like to say in public how much better the world works when the United States and Europe work together."
How frightfully nice of him. Of course, France is not Europe and not even the European Union, but that is not something a Foreign Minister of France would ever agree to. (Unless, of course, it is a question of sending troops to some former French colony, like the Ivory Coast. Then it becomes a matter of having some special understanding of West Africa because parts of it had been colonized by France. Europe does not get a look in.)

One assumes that a good deal of Condoleeza Rice’s trip round Europe, preparing the ground for President Bush’s own is by way of propaganda for domestic consumption. Look, she will be able to say, we have been nice to the Europeans, or, to be quite precise, the old Europeans. Now, let us see what they do in return.

Very little, is the general opinion, since there is very little they can do. Deutsche Welle quotes Stephan Bierling, an expert on US foreign policy at the University of Regensburg:
“European-American relations will improve in style and, above all, in atmosphere, but in strategic basic decisions there won’t be rapprochement with Secretary of State Rice either. The Americans’ absolute priority triad – Iraq,China and Iran – continues unchanged, and in all three aspects, the Europeans,particularly Germany and France, have nothing to add.”
I wouldn’t put it quite like that myself. In the matter of China, for instance, the Europeans, particularly Germany and France, have quite a lot to add and all of it will complicate matters between them and the United States, as well as help to destabilize the Far East and send the wrong signal to the Chinese government.

In Iran, the Franco-German-British attempts to negotiate have once again been stymied because the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, has just voted either to cancel or diminish significantly agreements with foreign firms, such as the Turkish mobile phone operator, Turkcell Iletisim Hizmetleri AS. One of the major planks of the great European negotiation with Iran was the carrot of foreign investment, that is now being frozen by firms who do not like economic uncertainty produced by governments.

Meanwhile, the French government is grappling with a serious internal problem. Despite the major demonstrations this week-end against the lifting of the 35 hour limit on the working week, a law has been passed by the Lower House of the Assemblée Nationale, which amends the socialist regulation.

Private firms will now be able to negotiate special deals with their workers to take the working week up to the EU’s limit of 48 hours. The bill has to go to the Senate, who is expected to pass it next month. President Chirac will most probably sign it without any demur.

France’s unemployment has risen to 10 per cent of the work force and has become endemic in certain sections. Since 1999 the country’s per capita productivity has decreased 4.3 per cent. The demonstrators may have proclaimed that they did not want to have to work more than 35 hours, others in the country have not had the luxury of choice for some time.

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