The French government, once Germany's closest ally on European integration, yesterday adopted a position that was much closer to Britain's than would have been imaginable until recently.
France set out its negotiating stance for this month's Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on the future of Europe, arguing for a multi-speed Europe with France and Germany in the fast lane, but at the same time for a sharp diminution in the role of European institutions. It also advocated the appointment of a secretary-general - "a voice and face of Europe" - to represent the European Union internationally.
The formal statement, presented to the National Assembly by the Europe minister, Michel Barnier, placed France between the Euro-federalism favoured by Germany and the more Euro-sceptical line taken by the British government. It was accompanied, however, by a ringing endorsement from the French prime minister, Alain Juppe, of the principle of the nation-state that offered succour to Euro-sceptics.
Addressing a conference in Paris of the European Democratic Union, the grouping of right of centre parties from eastern and western Europe, Mr Juppe said: "For us Gaullists, the nation-state remains more than ever the place that is both essential and central for realising the democratic contract, the social and political link, between the citizens and those who represent them." While Mr Juppe, who heads the Gaullist RPR party, was clearly tailoring his words to his audience, such a statement so close to the IGC sets a certain tone for French policy under an unas- hamedly Gaullist president.
The formal statement evinced considerably less confidence about the outcome of the IGC than France has habitually mustered before big European conferences. It warned directly of the "real risk" of stalemate.
Summing up the French position, Mr Juppe said that expectations of the IGC in France tended to be either too fatalistic, or too ambitious. France, he said, wanted three things from the IGC: a "more prosperous Europe", a "more secure Europe" and a Europe "closer to the citizen".
The specifics of the statement show that France wants the IGC to be short and sharp, and it wants firm decisions on reforming institutions before negotiations begin on accepting new members. It does not want any discussion of the single currency, which it regards as an agreed policy for implementation in January 1999 deadline.
On the question of reforming EU institutions, France's position appears close to Britain's. It wants a downgrading of the Commission's role and a reduction in commissioners to about 12. It also wants a similar reduction in the role of the Parliament, which should "monitor" implementation of policy rather than make it.
France is also proposing the formation of a new body, a "higher parliamentary council", made up of deputies from national parliaments, that would review legislation to judge whether it conformed to the principle of "subsidiarity".
In its definition of a European secretary-general's role, it also appears now to agree with Britain that such a post should be accountable to and mandated by European heads of state and government.
Where France differs most from Britain is on the role of the West European Union - membership of which, the French say, should be "a condition of EU membership" and form the executive arm of a European defence policy. It may also be open to wider use of majority voting than Britain would accept.
The government's pre-IGC statement was accepted by the assembly. There is a broad, if somewhat hazy, consensus among France's main political parties and groupings about Europe. The only out and out Euro-sceptical positions are taken by the two extremes of French politics, the communists and the National Front.