Cold comfort from Chancellor Kohl

The only good thing from Jacques Chirac's point of view about his meeting today with Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, has to be its the venue. The French president, who has been watching Paris burn from the distant vantage point of Benin, will be sorely tempted by the diversions of Baden- Baden. Perhaps a little birching in the sauna before taking the waters, or a flutter at the tables - anything but having to subject himself to Helmut's stern gaze.

Around the time of their last meeting, the Germans had privately begun referring to France as the "patient". It was this sort of talk that finally prompted Mr Chirac to declare, after months of shilly-shallying, that cutting the public deficit was his priority of priorities. Now the priority is being acted upon, and the patient is in high fever. But Mr Chirac is likely to look in vain for any meaningful act of sympathy. He will get, of course, the solemn affirmation of Franco-German solidarity on everything, which in any case is always recycled as a matter of course at these summits.

On substance, however, Mr Kohl can afford to be at his most self-righteous. Despite the burden of unification, equivalent to transferring to the east each year some 5 per cent of GDP, Germany has succeeded, through the recession of 1993 and 1994, in driving down its public deficit to below the Maastricht criteria level. France and Britain, in more favourable economic conditions, have failed to achieve as much. Kenneth Clarke has just pushed back his deficit reduction timetable by another year, so that Britain should come in under the 3 per cent bar in 1997.

President Chirac, however, has less room for such sleight of hand - stepping up to the mark on EMU is a matter of honour, and the pressure of international market scrutiny is that much greater on France. The biggest problem is that the French economy is crawling along on annualised GDP growth of under 1 per cent, and unemployment is rising again: hardly ideal fundamentals for deficit-slashing. That was the whole point of the convergence criteria. They were not meant to offer choice, just Teutonic virtue.

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