11 OCTOBER 2003, Page 22

Jacques de Gaulle

Jonathan Fenby says the French President is a single-minded nationalist who is not at all popular in Brussels There is a new bull in the European china shop. Gone are the days when Thatcherite handbag-wielding and Majorist opt-out equivocation drove the Continentals crazy. This autumn the most strident sound in the European Union is coming from Paris, as President Jacques Chirac demonstrates how to play the nationalist game while claiming to occupy the community's high moral ground.

A budget that busts the eurozone rules, anti-competitive subsidies, agricultural protectionism, threats to cut subsidies to other members — France is on a roll. If this antagonises the Commission and deeply irritates smaller countries that play by the eurozone rules, so be it. At 70, Chirac is set on carving out his place in history as worthy heir to Charles de Gaulle. After the coalition of the unwilling over Iraq, it is now time to whip Europe into line and to ensure that France stays in the driving seat when the constitution elaborated by his long-time rival Valery Giscard d'Estaing comes into force.

So this week we have seen the finance minister Francis Mer telling his EU colleagues that France's budget deficit will break the 3 per cent limit set by the eurozone in 2004 as well as this year — and that there is nothing he can do about it. As if that were not enough, France is also set to bust the ceiling established for the state debts. Back in Paris the government pointed to new figures showing that France would teeter into recession by the end of this year as an argument for being allowed to break the rules. The Commission has the power to fine France for its transgression, but that seems unlikely; the explosion this would provoke from the Elysee Palace is probably enough to deter Brussels from more than tut-tutting.

France is not alone in straying off course; Germany sinned similarly this year. But Chancellor Schroder is trying to do something about it, whereas Paris seems to be taking a positive pleasure in cocking a snook. Chirac has insisted that, while government spending rises, income-tax cuts he promised in his re-election campaign last year must be implemented come what may — adding to the pressure caused by falling growth and declining state revenues. His roly-poly prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, wanted to limit the cut to one percentage point; Chirac ordered him to make it three.

When the problems this would cause with the euro-rules were mentioned, Raffarin said, in tones that could only warm a Thatcherite heart, that he wasn't going to answer to 'an accounting office' in Brussels. His concern, he added, was with boosting employment in France, not with European regulations. Well, yes, except that after a year of Chirac's spending and tax-cutting, the French jobless rate is rising towards 10 per cent and big companies announce retrenchment measures by the week.

So when one of those firms, the engineering giant Alstom, headed for bankruptcy after some terrible management decisions, the government stepped in with funding of 800 million euros (£550 million) as part of a rescue package. This is not the kind of behaviour approved of by the Commission, which dislikes state loans on competition grounds. Paris stuck to its guns. Brussels stepped back, accepting a face-saving cosmetic deal that achieves the French aim of pouring in state money to bail out the maker of the high-speed train and the new Queen Mary 2 liner.

Then there is the matter of a French computer company called Bull, whose troubles date back decades. Again, the government had come to its aid last year with a 450 million euro (f1310 million) loan. As a condition of approving this, Brussels insisted that the money be repaid by the middle of June this year. So far, Paris has not done so. No wonder that the EU competition commissioner, Mario Monti, notes a 'coincidentally high' number of cases involving France in his in-tray, and that a French radio station recently held a phone-in show entitled 'Are France and Europe at war?'

The Gaullist Chirac is unabashed, even if Raffarin, a centrist former MEP who likes to play the European card, seems a trifle uneasy at setting France at odds with the union it helped to found 43 years ago. At the Rome summit last weekend, the President warned Spain and Poland that if they pressed their campaigns for equal voting rights with France in the enlarged EU, Paris could ensure that the regional aid they received would be put under review. Meanwhile, protection of French farmers has been achieved by the watering-down of reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, and France has explored military links with Germany and Belgium well away from Nato or the dangerously Atlanticist British.

Even more than that of other European nations, French EU policy closely reflects the character of the man in the Elysee, from the imperious de Gaulle, through the aristo-technocrat Giscard to the Machiavellian Mitterrand. The hardcharging approach in Paris is Chirac, through and through.

During his four decades in politics, the President has veered wildly across the ideological landscape, but there have been some constants. Whatever his current ideological bent, Chirac is, first and foremost, a French nationalist and an ardent defender of France's sovereignty. This is a man who identifies the public good with the nation state that is France, who wobbled over the French referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, and who once issued a proclamation from his hospital bed after a car crash denouncing the 'foreign party' that was plotting to dissolve French sovereignty in a supranational Europe and employing language that could have been taken as holy writ by British Eurosceptics.

He has always been a man in a hurry — his early presidential mentor Georges Pompidou described him as his 'bulldozer' — but his path has been distinctly bumpy: his two spells as prime minister were,unimpressive, he failed twice to get to the Elysee, and he has been the target of so many scandal allegations that only sleaze junkies take notice any more. When he finally won the top prize, he called parliamentary elections which he lost, and he had to spend five years watching the socialist Lionel Jospin run the country. The success of the National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in pushing Jospin out of the run-off ballot in last year's presidential election gave him his last great chance — though he had polled only 20 per cent in the first round, he swept to an 82 per cent score in the second as the Left decided to 'vote for a crook rather than a fascist'.

It was Chirac's epiphany, the moment he could finally embody the nation, as de Gaulle had 40 years before. Eighteen months on, the dream is crumbling. Opinion-poll ratings of both Chirac and, even more, Raffarin have fallen. Though the French socialists remain about as divided and ineffective as the British Conservatives, the government has faced a wave of discontent from teachers, publicsector workers, workers at summer festivals and the varied tribes of the far Left and the ecologists who amassed as many votes in the first round of the presidential election as did Chirac. Corsica remains an insoluble problem. The reputation of those twin pinnacles of the French state — the education and health services — have been dented by rising illiteracy and the 14,000 extra deaths from the summer heatwave. Above all, economic growth, which the government thought would hit 3 per cent this year, is moving into negative territory.

In such circumstances, it is entirely natural for a politician who sees himself as the incarnation of his country to play the nationalist card and to finger Brussels as the cause of France's troubles. With Germany signed up on Iraq and obsessed by its own domestic problems, the resident of the Elysee has only to proclaim himself an ardent European while making sure that France's interests are best served. The real and present danger for Brussels and euroland is that others will note and follow suit.

Jonathan Fenby is author of On the Brink: The Trouble with France (Abacus).