Tuesday, March 29, 2005

A sunset in Europe

If Chirac thought he was going to be welcomed with open arms in Tokyo, he was quickly disabused when he met Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi on Sunday.

In fact, Koizumi, leader of a nation renowned for its diplomatic protocols, was uncharacteristically blunt, telling l'escroc that Japan strongly opposed the lifting of a EU embargo on arms sales to China.

On another issue of contention, the siting of the proposed International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, Koizumi also refused to yield to the French bully, telling him equally bluntly that Japan would not give up its bid to host the site.

Wrapping up his visit to Japan, therefore, Chirac spoke not to the Japanese but to his own countrymen, kickstarting his government's campaign on the EU referendum, addressing the 7,500 expats in Japan, telling them to exercise their duty as citizens on 29 May 29 and "express yourselves on this crucial issue for the future of our country and for the French people."

Perhaps though it was his dusty treatment at the hands of Koizumi that put him in such a foul mood, French witness media reports over the weekend that he intervened to prevent the national television station, TF2, from allowing EU commission president, José Manuel Barroso appearing on the political programme 100 Minutes.

More likely, appears that Chirac feared that even 10 minutes of Barroso's "liberal" views on French television might cost votes in the referendum, although the French president is known to harbour a "low regard" for the commission chief and his "Anglo-Saxon" views.

However, there are fears that Chrac, by portraying the commission as an ultra-liberal Anglo-Saxon institution, may be fuelling the "no" campaign rather than his pro-constitution effort.

Certainly, the Daily Telegraph this morning sees hope in Chirac’s disarray, suggesting that after the third adverse poll, "one can almost hear the cry of 'Merde!' echoing round the Elysée Palace." With only nine weeks to go, it says, President Chirac is right to panic.

The paper also observes that French voters are in no mood to be addressed de haut en bas: the surge in support for the "no" lobby partly reflects the public's impatience with the tight-knit Parisian elite, so the propaganda may end up achieving the opposite of what was intended.

In common with other commentators, the paper feels that if M Giscard d'Estaing's "execrable constitutional treaty" is rejected by his own countrymen, the European federal project will almost certainly fall apart.

With that possibility in mind, following the long Easter weekend, prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin will this week try to revive the "yes" campaign, participating in a series of debates on the text and dispatching his ministers to do the same.

"Five hundred meetings are on the calendar. I personally will participate in more than 20 events to explain what is at stake," Raffarin has said on the private television network TF1. Foreign minister Michel Barnier has a marathon agenda of 70 meetings in the next two months before the vote and European affairs minister Claudie Haignere will also play a key campaign.

For once though, it is beginning to look like Chirac has lost his touch and all this activity is going to be to no avail. Fresh from the land of the rising sun, the man looks set to witness a sunset in Europe.

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