CANNES SUMMIT: Curtain up for Chirac centre-stage

FRANCE AND EUROPE

The opening of the European Summit at Cannes yesterday placed Jacques Chirac centre of his own stage. His painstaking preparations for Cannes and the high profile he took on the opening day revealed a man determined to put his stamp on Europe's future.

The question in many minds, however, particularly German minds, was - and still is - what sort of Europe Mr Chirac wants. On domestic policy, his election programme had focused on the need for change. On foreign policy, he had been more circumspect. On Europe, he had been exceptionally careful.

Now in power, Mr Chirac is being bolder. His decision to announce the resumption of nuclear testing before the Group of Seven meeting in Canada was not the action of a timid leader. What he has said on Europe recently has also held out more prospect of a change in France's position than his campaign statements suggested.

The hints of a new direction were there: in his campaign paper on Europe he spoke of wanting to "reconcile Europe with France and the French with Europe" - a turn of phrase that showed he recognised the divide between Euro-enthusiast leaders and suspicious voters that had become clear during the French referendum on the Maastricht treaty. At the same time, his advisors talked about France becoming a "bridge" between the German federalist idea of Europe and the British insistence on retaining national sovereignty.

Since Mr Chirac became president he has pursued each of these themes, adding for good measure his domestic preoccupation with employment and job creation. Yesterday, the proposals of French spokesmen - with the stress on state intervention and training - differed little from those formulated by Jacques Delors when he was president of the European Commission. Now they have turned subtly into an initiative that begins from French requirements and is projected on to Europe.

On the policies that used to be the tokens of good Europeanism, French style, however, Mr Chirac has been less clear. On the single currency, he has been instrumental in having the date for its introduction postponed from 1997 to 1999 and he supported a British proposal for a review of the effects of a single currency.

France is still debating its options on the Schengen agreement on abolishing border controls, but the Germans have made known that they are unhappy about French dithering. "They signed the agreement, they knew what they were signing, they should not go back on it," said one senior German representative last week. The sharpness of his words suggested uncertainty about more than French commitment to Schengen. What really seems to be worrying them are small but telling signs that Mr Chirac may be, if not loosening the Franco-German alliance, then aiming for similar bilateral arrangements with other EU members.

French statements on relations with Germany have been less exclusive than before. Speaking after his meeting with John Major two weeks ago Mr Chirac described the Franco-German alliance as "necessary... but insufficient". Britain, he said, had to be part of Europe too. The perceived weakness of Britain at Cannes, caused by Mr Major's precarious political position and the pending resignation of Douglas Hurd, may have set back Franco- British rapprochement. But it seems not to have cheered the Germans.

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