Language barriers

The Chirac/Blair spat shows international personality politics at work.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

‘You have been vairry rood, and I ‘ave nevairr been spoken to like this before!’

With these words – or something like them – Anglo-French relations took a sudden turn for the worse. French President Jacques Chirac publicly reprimanded British prime minister Tony Blair, who was, according to reports, visibly angry. After the row, Paris suspended the Anglo-French summit planned for December, and the British government in turn suspended many low-level contacts.

There are a number of immediate issues leading to the breach. France and Germany presented the European Union Enlargement Summit in Brussels with a pre-agreed plan, leaving Blair out of the loop. That plan puts the brakes on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy – reform would have reduced the subsidy that the European Union (EU) pays to farmers, a subsidy from which France gains more than Britain.

Chirac also used the summit to call for Britain’s rebate – the annual repayment that former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher negotiated in 1984 to compensate for the difference between what Britain gets from the EU and what it gives – to be scrapped.

At the Brussels summit, Tony Blair said that France’s claim to support Africa was empty since agricultural subsidies were a barrier to African farm goods.

These recent spats are more surprising since some long-running British complaints against France had been solved recently, with the agreement to close the Sangatte Refugee Camp just over the Channel from Dover, and the lifting of the French ban on British beef.

But behind the scenes France has enhanced its political influence on world affairs in a way that has alarmed the British Foreign Office. In the United Nations (UN), France’s bullish opposition to the American and British proposal for a single resolution against Iraq prevented President George W Bush and prime minister Tony Blair from creating a fast-track to conflict, and forced Bush to genuflect to the authority of the UN.

In the EU’s constitutional convention, Valèry Giscard D’Estaing has put forward bold proposals for a United States of Europe, of which Britain – used to keeping hold of the diplomatic initiative – is jealous. Former Europe Minister Peter Hain took on the Thatcherite mantle with a dismissive ‘frankly [it’s] not on, we won’t accept that’.

Another factor is the re-emergence of the Franco-German axis in Europe, which diminishes Britain’s influence. And the relaxation of the Stability Pact rules restricting government spending allows greater intervention and strategic national support for domestic industries.

All of these pressures are at work in the current row between Britain and France. However, such conflicts are always beneath the surface in relations between Great Powers. What is new is the extent to which these conflicts have been allowed to break out, and how deeply personalised they have become.

Where once diplomatic language was a by-word for politeness, euphemisms and gritted-teeth, today the language is a lot more acerbic. During the recent German elections, one minister from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) likened the American president to Adolf Hitler, leading Bush to decline to congratulate victorious SPD leader Gerhard Schröder, despite receiving a written apology. European parliamentarians have not shied away from denouncing the US leader, and Chirac himself indicated that Blair was too sycophantic to Bush.

It is to be expected that an age that puts greater stress on personalities in politics will express its international conflicts through personal spats. The political frameworks that regulated international relations are less clear than they used to be in the Cold War era. Premiers do not know how far they can go in trading insults, or snubbing opponents.

Europeans are simply amazed at what they see as the bullish attitude of the USA over the Kyoto agreement and the proposed International Criminal Court, as Americans are at European insensitivity to their sense of hurt over 11 September. But in turn, leaders are more willing to be insulted by any comment or proposal.

The personal face of leaders becomes the governing element in international relations where a direct appeal to national interest is seen as problematic. Whatever Blair really thinks about France’s actions over CAP, his advisors will be telling him that he cannot be seen to lose face, and must show anger to persuade the public that he is not a pushover.

The spat between Chirac and Blair finds both leaders behaving like clerks in a local government office, pursuing grievances against each other under the equal opportunities policy. Rather than opposing the Common Agricultural Policy because it will cost the British taxpayer, Blair finds it necessary to speak on behalf of the poor farmers of Africa. Chirac in turn believes that he is being charged of racism.

The end result is diplomacy at the level of temper tantrums, where the restraints of responsibility to national interests are diminished in favour of personal pique.

James Heartfield is the author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Perpetuity Press, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); and Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy, Design Agenda, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). He is also coauthor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today