Distortion and hysteria blight the British cause, says Pierre de Gasquet
THE ESSENTIAL difference between the downfall of Lord Cranborne and the tabloids' campaign against tax harmonisation is that the former has passed totally unnoticed on the other side of the Channel, while the latter spread like wildfire across the whole of Europe. The Sun proudly claims to be leading a "national crusade". Fine. But what crusade? A campaign against the euro or a campaign of disinformation? After two weeks of hubbub and misrepresentations, it is far from certain that the average English- man is any the wiser on the advantages and risks of European tax harmonisation. On the other hand, for the average European observer, the manipulative power of the British tabloids remains unfathomable.

Less than a month from the launch of the single currency in the 11 countries of Euroland, a place seen by the Sun as a volcanic "terra incognita", tabloid scare stories have replaced serious debate about Europe among many Britons. At St Malo, the prospect of VAT on children's clothes almost overshadowed the European defence agreement. And premature talk of the British veto threatens to ruin any chance of an intelligent debate about better tax harmonisation.

In campaigning against the German finance minister, Oskar Lafontaine, the Sun and the Mirror, whether joking or not, are not merely gratifying the xenophobic instincts of their readers. They are side-stepping the issue of the British economy's competitiveness and ruining the pro-European efforts of Tony Blair's government. Everything revolves around minor remarks by Mr Lafontaine and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French finance minister, even if, obviously, these were not entirely innocent. The fact that the German foreign minister, Gunter Verheugen, insisted in London last week that Bonn does not intend to introduce reform on the right of veto on taxation during its forthcoming German presidency of the EU went by almost unnoticed.

It is true that the qualified remarks of the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, assuring his finance minister of his support in the Financial Times, might seem to endow credibility to the tabloids' campaign, but the European commissioner on taxation, Mario Monti, has himself explained, in London, that the European Commission is not seeking uniformity of VAT rates in the future, but rather a "better convergence". No matter: the tabloids have still declared a "massive rise in VAT for British families" is on the way. The quality papers can but follow suit or be marginalised. Even the French daily Le Monde seems to feel obliged, in a quest for comprehensive coverage, to reflect scrupulously the hysterical outbursts of the tabloid leader-writers desperate for notoriety. It is enough to make one believe that the galloping paranoia of the British media on Europe might end up crossing the Channel.

Of course, Mr Blair's adviser Alastair Campbell is not in the best position to denounce the "hysteria of the British media", while standing on his offended spin-doctor's dignity. The tax-harmonisation psycho-drama clearly reveals the limits of New Labour spin-doctoring. By playing too much with "the most dangerous newspaper in Europe", even the best of Labour governments will end up getting burnt. The sacking of Lord Cranborne has temporarily chased away the spectre of VAT on children's clothes. But European public opinion will recall the latter more than the former, even if the distorting mirror of the tabloids does reflect a false image of the evolution in British thinking.

The writer is London correspondent of the French business daily, 'Les Echos'.