'Rude' Chirac ruffles a few feathers

Cannes Summit: President's Debut
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Jacques Chirac looked and behaved every inch as the leader of Europe yesterday, striding purposefully out of the Cannes conference centre with Chancellor Helmut Kohl at his side. This, too, was how most of the French media presented him.

In and around the summit meeting, there were different accounts of how Mr Chirac had acquitted himself. What John Major described as a "breath of fresh air" after his first meetings with Mr Chirac three weeks ago was being labelled "undiplomatic" or even "rude".

Earlier this month Mr Chirac reportedly told the Dutch Prime Minister, Wim Kok, to tighten up his country's policy on drug trafficking or face France closing its northern border. He was also said to have told the Greek leader, Andreas Papandreou, that he regarded the Bosnian Serbs as "terrorists", not fighters for Orthodox Christianity. At Cannes, the most prominent upset came with the Italian leader, Lamberto Dini, whom Mr Chirac reportedly took to task for allowing Italy's currency to fall "too low".

France has similar complaints against the Spanish and Portuguese, but it was Italy that caught the rough edge of Mr Chirac's tongue. Italian officials said the French leader's tone was abrupt, and that he made a bilateral matter out of a general European problem.

Mr Chirac was also reported to have criticised Germany for its earlier reluctance to increase its contribution to the aid budget for developing countries. Mr Chirac's disapproval of Germany (and Britain) on this score was well known. What displeased German officials was that Mr Chirac alluded to the difficulty after it had been resolved by a German concession, and that he took a "moralising" and "didactic" tone.

Mr Major's resignation as Tory leader and Douglas Hurd's pending departure as Foreign Secretary had the apparent benefit of exempting Britain from Mr Chirac's "moralising", lest he destabilise the Prime Minister further. The talk in the corridors, however, was of perceived insults. One French journalist conceded that to have insulted four European leaders in as many weeks was not the best possible start, but expressed confidence Mr Chirac would "learn" how to operate in the European milieu.

nMr Chirac said yesterday that France would decide tonight on whether to ask for an extension of the trial period implementing the Schengen agreement. The Interior Minister, Jean-Louis Debre, has argued for an extension to iron out problems, while the Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, has argued for full implementation as agreed on 1 July.