Magazine article The Spectator

Row? What Row? the Real Story, as the French Saw, Was the Revival of the Franco-German Alliance

Magazine article The Spectator

Row? What Row? the Real Story, as the French Saw, Was the Revival of the Franco-German Alliance

Article excerpt

The British newspapers have been full of `Le Row'. This is the now famous bustup at the Brussels summit between Jacques Chirac, the President of France, and Tony Blair. According to the Financial Times, which broke the story on Monday morning, Mr Chirac strode up to Mr Blair and gave him what for. `You have been very rude and I have never been spoken to like this before,' he is supposed to have said. The Financial Times reported that the exchange had taken place `as Mr Blair mounted a rearguard action to water down a controversial Franco-German deal on farm subsidies'. Mr Blair was said by the paper `to have been shocked by the attack which followed Mr Chirac's threat to reopen negotiations on Britain's EU rebate'.

While our papers have been full of `Le Row', the French press, as I write, has scarcely mentioned it. Tuesday's Le Figaro relegated the story to page five, and reported it from London. I spoke to a French journalist who covered the summit in Brussels, and he told me that neither he nor any of his colleagues had known anything about `Le Row' until they read about it in the Financial Times. This does not mean that there wasn't a dust-up between the two men, but it does strongly imply that the published version of events came entirely from the British side. Indeed, the FT piece made no attempt to conceal its reliance on British diplomatic sources. French officials are mentioned only at the end of the story, where they are quoted as saying that what happened in Brussels was `de bonne guerre'.

I am not suggesting that `Le Row' has been entirely confected by Foreign Office and Downing Street spin doctors. Mr Chirac is an abrasive chap - he once accused Margaret Thatcher of talking 'balls' - and is known sometimes to lose his temper, or at any rate to appear to have done so. Very possibly he did have a contretemps with Mr Blair, though I would suggest that his alleged comments (`You 'ave been very rude,' etc.) have been considerably worked on by Foreign Office scriptwriters who watched rather too many episodes of Allo, Allo when young. They simply do not ring true. Nor do I buy into the image of a shocked Tony Blair who had to have cold compresses applied to his fevered brow after Mr Chirac's verbal assault.

The truth is that the British were sidelined at Brussels by a revived Franco-German alliance. Being at `the heart of Europe' did not do the slightest bit of good. Mr Chirac was determined that France should continue to receive generous subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy until 2013, and Mr Blair's hopes of reforms were swept aside. This was obviously very embarrassing for the British. So the decision was taken to make as much as possible of the Blair-Chirac spat, which the French did not intend to mention. When Mr Blair reported on the summit in the Commons on Monday afternoon, he was able to present himself as a British champion who, according to the Financial Times, had been set upon by a pesky Frenchman. The effect was to take the spotlight off his failure, and to outflank the Tories, none of whom is believed to have had a bout of fisticuffs recently with a French president, if ever.

Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's director of communications who oversees relations with the media, is wont to complain about their fascination with personalities rather than issues. In this instance, encouraged by government spin doctors, most newspapers chose to focus on personalities, and to ignore the wider picture. …

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