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Last Updated: Friday, 24 March 2006, 17:57 GMT
French pride tested at EU summit
By Mark Mardell
BBC Europe editor, Brussels

Italy's Silvio Berlusconi gives Jacques Chirac a back rub

French President Jacques Chirac left Brussels saying that he had been "deeply shocked" by the language used at this summit.

That is because the language was English, and it was being spoken by a fellow Frenchman.

The president, a lover of dramatic gesture, walked out of one meeting, trailing his senior ministers behind him, when the head of Europe's business organisation, Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, had the temerity to abandon the language of Balzac for that of Bush and Blair.

What must have made it worse for President Chirac is that his compatriot made it clear that he committed this, how shall we say... faux pas because English was the language of business, and that was a fact of life.

It would be hard not to read this as a display of "linguistic patriotism" to go with the official French government policy of "Economic Patriotism".

You could see both varieties of patriotism as either an inability to face up to the real world or a brave stand against the crushing force of Anglo-Saxon hegemony. Or both.

But they certainly reflect the reality of France's position within the European Union, which has been changing over the last decade.

Once French was the main language of the EU, the only language that everyone had to speak, just as the EU's economic policy reflected French priorities. The entry of the Scandinavian states, then the Eastern European ones, changed all that.

Back rub

But at least President Chirac escaped a formal assault on his economic policy.

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had planned an attack on "economic protectionism", but no one else was eager to join him. So instead he gave the president a jokey back massage.

The reason others did not join in (the attack rather than the massage) was because they thought there was little that the EU could do in concrete terms. And there was no point in needlessly making an example of anyone. Even President Chirac.

In fact, this was one of those workman-like summits where most of the hard graft had already been put in by civil servants and where, linguistic flounces aside, there was no need for head-to-head confrontations.

They have agreed that more work should be done on a common EU energy policy. The Austrians, who are in the hot seat, say this will be looked back on as "historic".

Healthy direction

Perhaps, but at the moment there are a lot of question marks over details and even more work for those civil servants.

The text issued at the end of the summit tries hard to make it sound as though something of moment had happened, talking of "a fundamental relaunch" of the Lisbon Strategy, the jargon term for a more prosperous and economically liberal Europe.

But while the European Union can beam or frown on certain countries for the degree of enthusiasm that they pursue their "national reform programmes" this really is the business of the nation states. The Commission has neither the power, nor more importantly the will, to wave a big stick.

Prime Minister Tony Blair left for the Commonwealth Games looking as though his mind was on other things, saying that the direction of travel of the European economy was "healthy".

That probably translates as meaning not much was done, but what was done sent the right signals. And sent them in English.

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