The French Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, belatedly discovered he had two other engagements, but no one wanted to make too much of that. In any case, Mr Rifkind's mission is precisely not to talk to governments but to talk to people: to explain that Britain is not the anti-European ogre imagined on the Continent; and to ask the people of Europe whether they really understand, and approve, of the federalising European policies espoused in their name.
He was given a reasonable hearing but two questions stood out: why had he waited until so late in the European argument; and why had he waited until most intelligent French people had discounted his government's chances of shaping that debate for much longer?
Mr Rifkind gave a policy speech last night to the principal French foreign- affairs think- tank, the Institut Francais de Relations Internationales, in which he said Britain was against unthinking European "integration" but favoured more and more co-operation. The symbolic centrepiece of the visit, however, was a question-and-answer session with students at the Institut d'Etudes Politique, or Science-Po, the premier French college of political science.
Mr Rifkind put on a good show but several questioners could not resist teasing him. What would Britain's policy on Europe be in, say, three months? He took it all in good part and, like a good politician, repeated his core message in answer to every question.
The core message was this: Europe is not America; the United States has a single national identity, language and culture which can sustain single, federal institutions; Europe does not. Europe has many different cultures and identities. We want to keep it that way. You cannot have cultural identity without self-government. Britain does not want to roll back the supra-national institutions and policies which exist in Europe.
But it does question whether other European Union governments and peoples have thought through the federalising policies now on the table. If economic policy, immigration policy, justice policy are surrendered to Brussels, what will be left to national governments, which remain the only ones directly accountable to the people?
Mr Rifkind was heard politely and not often directly challenged. A sprinkling of British and German students in the audience asked the most aggressive questions. Was the EU shambles in Bosnia not an example of the price Europe was paying for not having a more federal foreign policy, one British student asked.
Several students, questioned afterwards, found the exercise refreshing. "He was very clear and quite persuasive," said David Michel, a third-year student. "I had not considered enough before this question of which policies should be European and which not." Was he pro-European? "Yes, that is, until I spent some time at the European Parliament. Now I'm more pragmatic."Reuse content