Chirac unveils new jobs deal for EU states forEU summit

IGC summit: French to launch `social model' for Europe in Turin to quell mounting hostility to EU at home
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The Independent Online
President Jacques Chirac yesterday outlined a French initiative to define a "social model" for Europe. He said he would present his proposals to the Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC), which will rewrite the Maastricht treaty, when it opens on Friday.

The initiative was the centrepiece of a lengthy article on Europe contributed by the President to the left-of-centre newspaper Liberation, and which proposed measures to encourage job creation, restrict working hours and reduce the disparities in social and welfare provision across Europe.

The precise content of the plan will be finalised at tomorrow's Cabinet meeting and circulated to France's European partners on the eve of the Turin conference.

Mr Chirac's initiative coincided with a French gesture designed to seal its European credentials in the eyes of its chief ally, Germany. An announcement from the Foreign Ministry said that France was lifting the border controls it retained after the Schengen agreement on open borders came into force.

France annoyed Germany when it delayed the abolition of controls last year, citing the Netherlands' liberal drug laws and the terrorist threat.

Yesterday's implementation of the Schengen treaty is only partial, however. Controls with the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) will remain until "satisfactory" measures can be agreed for controlling drug trafficking. The Netherlands' liberal attitude towards drugs continues to be a source of great friction with France.

A summit to discuss the problem had to be cancelled earlier this month because diplomats could not find sufficient common ground.

Dutch officials have since made it clear they believe Mr Chirac is obsessed by the drugs issue, while French officials have described the Netherlands, on the record, as a "narco-state".

If yesterday's move on Schengen was intended to reassure the Germans, Mr Chirac's decision to launch an initiative on "social Europe", and his choice of Liberation to reveal the first details of it, appeared designed to address the worries of ordinary French people, and a strong dissident strand in his own Gaullist party.

In the approach to the IGC, French politicians of all persuasions have evinced concern that the voters increasingly associate the European Union with an unaccountable Brussels, job losses and economic belt-tightening, which could turn people against the whole idea of the European Union.

Influential members of President Chirac's own Gaullist (RPR) party also feel that he has not delivered on his election promise to make jobs and "ending the social divide" his top priority.

These two concerns were forcefully articulated over the weekend by one of France's chief Euro-sceptics, the influential chairman of parliament (and Gaullist) Philippe Seguin. Speaking at a conference on employment in his home region of Epinal in eastern France, Mr Seguin said that jobs, especially for young people, were a matter of extreme urgency.

In yesterday's article, Mr Chirac seemed to respond with sympathy to the views put forward by Mr Seguin, saying that "a community that had an annual budget of more than 500bn francs [pounds 65bn] at its disposal" had "a formidable instrument for employment".

Mr Seguin has frequently found himself at odds with the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, who has presented sound public finances as a priority that will bring jobs with it.

Although Mr Chirac appeared to take Mr Seguin's line on jobs, however, the small print of his plan contained little that was new and no suggestion about how more money might be raised to pay for job-creation schemes.

Yesterday, officials stressed that Mr Chirac's "social plan" in no way negated or replaced the French government's official IGC negotiating position, which was approved two weeks ago after a debate in parliament.

They also noted that Mr Juppe would present the final version of it to the Cabinet. Its appearance only five days before the IGC opens, however, has introduced a confusing element that was probably intended more for domestic consumption than for Turin.