An embrace of lost men

Share
Related Topics
WHEN John Major and Jacques Chirac meet at Chequers today the atmosphere is likely to be unusually cordial. During Francois Mitterrand's 14 years as President of France it was impossible for a British leader to relax in his company. With Margaret Thatcher he practised a courtliness which at times seemed so exaggerated as to be ironic. Mr Major, like many others, struggled with his delphic and obscure manner. Now things are different: Mr Major and Mr Chirac have much in common.

Both are conservatives; both are struggling to hold down government spending; both must reckon with anti-European pressures; both profess themselves defenders of national sovereignty. They even share a certain gastronomic populism: for Mr Major's fry-ups at Happy Eater read Mr Chirac's late- night pave with rouge at the corner brasserie. All this has encouraged hopes that there exists the basis for, if not quite a new Franco-British alliance, at least a closer understanding, and one that could be useful to Britain.

It was Mr Chirac's trenchant realism, the theory runs, that turned the European tide in Mr Major's favour in recent months. By placing national interest above European partnership and by taking one step back from the German embrace so long enjoyed by his predecessor, he altered the balance of the European Union. Interests are seen to be converging elsewhere. Take the nuclear tests in the Pacific. Britain, almost alone, has not condemned them. They are, we are told, a matter for the French. They, like us, are a nuclear power and that is burdensome. Mr Chirac must be grateful.

Yet this alliance is built on illusion. How did France respond to the outrage that greeted the first test? Not by stressing the independent, sovereign nature of its deterrent, but by suggesting that other European countries should or could shelter under the French nuclear umbrella. Perhaps this includes us. If so, what does Michael Portillo think about it? And what does he think about Mr Chirac's other ideas for European defence co-operation, which are to play an important part in today's discussions? For France, these are aimed at creating a European power to counterbalance the weight of the United States, an idea to horrify most Conservatives.

More importantly, on the future of Europe, London and Paris scarcely have a common approach - they may even be heading in different directions. Only last Thursday Mr Chirac was promising his people he would cut the public sector deficit within two years because, as he put it, "We must do it to be able to share in the single European currency". Is this scepticism? His words, it is true, may not be all they seem, for Mr Chirac has worn all sorts of economic clothes in his time, from free-spender to monetarist scrimper and from free-marketeer to dirigiste. Take his dedication to the franc fort: in 1986, when he became prime minister for the second time, his first act was to devalue. Or his views on taxes: during his election campaign he stated categorically that it was possible to cut direct taxation; in September his prime minister admitted that this possibility would not actually present itself for several years.

If nothing else, Mr Chirac's extraordinary performance in office these past five months should be enough to instil a certain caution on the British side. A mountain of difficulties on the international stage - nuclear tests, the franc under pressure, relations with Germany and Algeria - is matched by a similar mountain at home. An atmosphere of sleaze prevails; public employees and farmers are in uproar; businesses and consumers are squealing about tax. Last week even the chefs took to the streets: in the land of good food, they complained, a meal in a decent restaurant is now taxed at four times the rate of a burger in a fast-food joint. Little wonder that the President's approval rating stands at 14 per cent.

Mr Major may be justified in a sense of fellow-feeling with such a luckless, inconsistent and unpopular leader but that is no foundation for partnership. This is an alliance based not on any congruence of interests but on shared weakness. It is, perhaps, a model for the mean and shallow relationships that would exist in the minimalist Europe that Conservatives now speak of, but what sort of future is that? Mr Major and Mr Chirac are lost men clinging to each other in a storm; their embrace gives us little reason to celebrate.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner / Caretaker / Storeman

£15500 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A position has become available...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Sales - SaaS B2B

£60000 - £120000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This conference call startup i...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital and print design a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File photo dated 11/3/2014 of signage for the main entrance and emergency department at a hospital  

Weekend opt-out is stumbling block as BMA and NHS negotiate new consultant and junior doctor contracts

Charlie Cooper
The alleged meeting between George Osborne and Rupert Murdoch is said to have taken place in Downing Street in late June (Getty)  

Rupert Murdoch's private meeting with George Osborne: The mogul always likes to back a winner

James Cusick James Cusick
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years