BUILDING EUROPE: French struggle to stem the tide of disillusion

The parties' public debates on the EU have only exposed bitter divisions, writes Mary Dejevsky

Paris - As France makes its final preparations for the Inter-Governmental Conference that opens in Turin at the weekend, its political classes are exhibiting a very unFrench sentiment: angst. There is angst about the course of the conference and its outcome; angst about the state and response of French public opinion.

The uncertainties about Europe have been evident, at least since France delivered a "petit oui" to the Maastricht treaty in a 1992 referendum. But it is only now, with the approach of the IGC, that politicians have recognised the real risk of French alienation from Europe and scrambled to do something about it.

The past two weeks have witnessed a positive orgy of "consultation" and "debate" in all political parties in an overdue attempt by politicians to discover what their rank-and-file activists think about Europe and to find a few good ideas around which a national consensus can be built.

The Socialists held a whole day of discussion in Paris, where they invited the Communists, Greens and Radicals to come along in an attempt to form a broad consensus on the left.

The loose centre-right pro-European grouping, the UDF, took elected officials nation-wide to a restored abbey 90 minutes from Paris for a day's contemplation, while the Gaullists convened their "national council" in Paris on Saturday for a day of fraught discussion, saved only by the absence of the Euro-sceptic, Philippe Seguin.

The result of all this consultation did not provide much consolation for France's IGC negotiators. Not only was there precious little consensus within any of the groupings - a "political cacophony" was how even the pro-European UDF described it - but from Socialists to Gaullists, there was an uncharacteristic lack of confidence about the outcome. "If the IGC fails", or "if France is not heeded", were sentiments that were frequently heard.

What all the discussion has done is to force French politicians, if not yet public opinion, to confront the sort of fundamental questions Britain has wrangled with since the start of its involvement with Europe.

For, while the questions posed by the organisers of each gathering were quite different, the content of the discussions was almost identical. Where should the EU stop and the nation state begin? How much, if any, sovereignty or national identity, would France be prepared to give up to achieve political union? What implications has EU membership had, or could it have, for jobs, agriculture, and the French lifestyle, including its public services?

The Socialists parted happily, content to have got all the left around one table, but without the barest outline of a political platform beyond a recognition that Europe was "a good thing" and should create more jobs. Jacques Delors was cheered when he silenced a Socialist Euro-sceptic by saying: "If the piano that is Europe is not working, shoot the pianist, not the piano."

The UDF re-nailed its colours to Valery Giscard d'Estaing's European mast, and spoke of the need to sell Europe more actively to French voters. The Gaullists had a slanging match, with every reference to the nation state applauded and an onslaught on the single currency from Charles Pasqua, the former interior minister.

The former prime minister, Edouard Balladur, defended Europe, arguing that unemployment would be worse without Europe. There was a speech from the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, who swiped back at Mr Balladur that if he wanted US-style tax levels, he would get a US-style welfare state.

Mr Juppe's prepared text had set out known aspects of France's negotiating position at Turin, such as a figurehead for a common foreign and security policy and a bigger role for national parliaments. The speech he gave, however, mentioned none of this, promising a "French initiative" at Turin, to be presented by Mr Chirac, and outlining a "social programme" for Europe. This social programme, details of which have not been released, may be the French President's attempt to reconcile the French with Europe but Saturday seemed to be the first time his Prime Minister had heard of it.

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