Inside File: The Good, the Bad and the French

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - As we learned in 1066 and All That, what is French is a Bad Thing and what is English is a Good Thing. Funny, that. Until a few weeks ago, the Balladur Stability Pact - the French Prime Minister's answer to security in Eastern Europe - was, indeed, a Bad Thing. Britain did not know what it was there for; it was, we were told, all typically French bombast and no substance; the governments in Prague and Warsaw, two of the very countries the plan is supposed to help, had complained to Douglas Hurd personally that it was really a ruse by France to delay their entry to the European Union - which entry is a goal dear to Britain's heart.

Now, on the eve of today's inauguration of the Pact, it is suddenly a Good Thing. Last weekend, when Mr Hurd held talks with his Russian counterpart by the light of Murmansk's midnight sun, they agreed that the Pact had been 'vague' at first; but that Edouard Balladur had now 'licked it into shape'. The Foreign Secretary was going to be 'cautiously optimistic' about it in Paris.

The reason for that, in turn, was that Andrei Kozyrev had decided to be nice about the Pact. He was originally not even going to attend the Paris inauguration. Mr Kozyrev changed his mind, the British insisted, not because he really believed in the thing; but because of a trade-off behind the scenes between Mr Kozyrev and his French counterpart, Alain Juppe, who visited Russia only two days before Mr Hurd.

The French had been blocking the signing of Russia's Partnership and Co-operation Agreement with the European Union, over objections to Russia's cheap uranium exports. The trade-off, so the story goes, was that Mr Juppe dropped his objections to the uranium in return for Russia dropping its objections to the Pact.

What's good enough for the Russians must be good enough for the British. And so the majority of the Foreign Office, including Mr Hurd, now thought the Pact a Good Thing. That was hard for some British diplomats to swallow, since Anglo-French relations had of late not been as close as Britain may pretend. France had recently betrayed the relationship by making announcements on troop withdrawals from Bosnia and international ministerial meetings without prior consultation with their British ally. Mr Hurd was going to Paris to 'embrace' those French ministers who had made the surprise announcements in a game of domestic rivalry and one-upmanship far more important to them than Anglo-French ties.

So those British officials who still referred to the plan as a 'half-baked, smart ass, frog idea, full of incomprehensible language like problemes de voisinage' were now outnumbered.

Yet it seems the reason for Russia's acceptance went beyond the 'trade-off'. Another very good reason was its real key ally, the Americans, had also decided to send someone to be nice about the plan. And their reason was, in turn, that they wanted nothing to spoil President Bill Clinton's visit to France this summer, which they hope will be a triumph like that of JFK in 1961 (a vain hope, since it was Jackie who won France's heart).

By now it seems clear that all of the above are being nice about the Pact not for any concern about Eastern Europe, but out of self-interest. But what of the French themselves? Well, their reasons for supporting their own pact, a source close to the Quai d'Orsay tells me, are twofold: 'First, for internal consumption. It is a public push by Balladur and Juppe to take away from Mitterrand any foreign policy prerogatives he may still have. Second, to highlight the problems of the Eastern Europeans, and bring home to Germany yet again that the EU cannot afford to let them in for a long time in the future.' Germany is of course France's key ally, and the two have indeed agreed to postpone any plans for East European entry during their consecutive EU presidencies, beginning with Bonn's on 1 July. And Britain remains an island, entire of itself.