An embrace of lost men

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?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Our media are suffering a new experience: not fear of being called anti-Semitic'  

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In my grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel