Thursday, June 24, 2004

What on earth are the French up to?

First we are told that President Chirac is still mulling over whether to have a referendum on the EU Constitution. Then we hear that former President Giscard d’Estaing has announced on the basis of goodness knows what that the referendum will probably be next spring. Exactly what is M Giscard d’Estaing’s position in the French government?

Meanwhile, the Socialist party appears to be split over the Constitution. The former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius has proclaimed himself to be rather "reticent" on the subject (does he mean ambivalent?). He will, he thinks, find it hard to cheer for a document that will not solve any problems.

His colleague, the former Minister for Europe, Pierre Moscovici, has announced that he is in favour of the Constitution but has added that the referendum will be a risk that they will have to run and win.

The Greens, too, are split on the subject, though that is clearly a pan-European problem. (They do exist occasionally.) Generally speaking they are europhile but some of them think that there is too much of a liberal agenda in the Constitution. It is not clear how they managed to find anything resembling a liberal agenda in that most illiberal of documents.

President Chirac's greatest danger, as so often, does not come from any of the opposition parties but from his own. Nicolas Sarkozy, the Economics Minister is snapping at his heels, having made it clear that he intends to run for president in 2007.

Contradicting M Chirac publicly, Sarkozy has announced that useful though the Franco-German axis was, it had to be supplemented in the enlarged union. His idea is that the EU should be run by a kind of a coalition of the willing or, at least, the large. Countries with populations of between 40 million and 80 million should form a lose alliance to dominate the politics of the Union. These would be France, Germany, the UK, Spain, Italy and Poland. I think one can safely say that these ideas, when they become public, will find little support in the other 19 countries.

M Sarkozy, fresh from defending all sorts of state bail-outs in France against the Commission, has also told journalists that he intends to introduce all sorts of reforms in France to ensure that its stalled economy takes off again.

Among other reforms, he wants to do something about the 35 hour week, which is costing France an estimated 16 billion euros (c.£10.6 billion) a year. And he wants to balance the books and bring the French budget back into the Growth and Stability Pact.

It is hard for a French politician not to be statist or dirigiste. M Sarkozy is no exception. He wants supermarkets to reduce their prices by two per cent in order to stimulate the economy. His original idea had been to introduce price controls.

And we think our politicians are all over the shop.

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