France sees Chirac as loser in the 'Battle of Brussels'

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The Independent Online

If President Jacques Chirac hoped to regain some domestic popularity through his European showdown with Tony Blair, the French press and opinion polls are making grim reading in the Elysée Palace.

If President Jacques Chirac hoped to regain some domestic popularity through his European showdown with Tony Blair, the French press and opinion polls will be making grim reading in the Elysée Palace.

The consensus of most French press commentary over the weekend was that the British Prime Minister had "won" the Battle of Brussels (on the eve of the 190th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo). President Chirac was presented as a double loser, on the future of the EU constitution and the future of the EU budget. The centre-left newspaper Le Monde, in an editorial headed "Blair prend la main" (Blair takes over) pointed to the paradoxical consequences of the French non to the European constitution three weeks ago. Left-wing campaigners for the "no" vote in France had promised a plan B in which Paris would be able to impose a more "social", protectionist, anti-free-market Europe. In fact, the "champion of social-liberalism", Tony Blair, had been placed in the driving seat, Le Monde said. "The only plan B which exists ... is the plan Blair," the newspaper said.

But much of the "praise" for Mr Blair was ironical. His refusal to accept a freeze in the UK rebate, even at a higher level than this year, was seen by the French press as a kick in the teeth to the poorer, new members in eastern Europe who had been prepared to give up some of their own potential gains from the EU. French officials also predicted Mr Blair's apparent victory in Brussels would be empty. "If Blair had accepted the final compromise on Friday, which was extremely generous to the UK, he would have been in a position to call the tune for the rest of this year and maybe beyond," one French diplomat said. "As it is, even his allies in Europe are angry with him. He will get nowhere."

France's Europe minister, Catherine Colonna, warned in a radio interview that the future of Europe could be decided only by all 25 nations, not one country wishing to impose its view. There could be no policy of "rupture" with the past, she said, only a collegiate or "consensual" decision on how to move forward.

French officials dismissed suggestions in the British press that M. Chirac would set out on a personal crusade to block Mr Blair. The Elysée Palace specifically contradicted reports the President would "snub" the first day of Mr Blair's showpiece, the G8 summit at Gleneagles next month. There would be no need for France to put itself in such an exposed position, the officials said. Mr Blair had so angered the other member states that a French rearguard action would be unnecessary.

One Paris official said that Mr Blair seemed to have gone into "messianic mode", believing that he could singlehandedly transform the EU. Any attempt to appeal directly to European "peoples" over the heads of their governments would be a farce, he predicted.

Mr Blair will speak to the European Parliament this week, before taking over the presidency of the EU. He is expected to stress that he is not donning the mantle of Lady Thatcher by wrecking the prospects of agreement at last week's EU summit, which collapsed amid acrimony in the early hours of Saturday.

The Prime Minister will stress that he is not simply following free-market Conservative policies, but has been responsible for the minimum wage among other initiatives to protect the lowest paid and worst off in society. However, he will make it clear that he intends to crusade for economic reform during the UK's presidency of the EU for the next six months.