Gallic spat gives way to new entente
WORLD VIEW:Hollande has delivered on his promise to improve France’s relations with Ireland
THE FRENCH presidential election was in full swing last February when the influential president of the senate, Jean-Pierre Bel, met a visiting Oireachtas delegation led by Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett.
When Bel arrived, he explained he had just come from the daily strategy meeting of his colleague François Hollande’s election campaign. The candidate had asked him to pass on a message. Tell the Irish, Hollande said to Bel, that “with a change of government in Paris, the atmosphere of relations with Ireland will change for the better”.
That change duly occurred, and as Monday’s tête-à-tête with Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the Élysée Palace demonstrated, Hollande was true to his word. Dublin got just what it hoped for from the visit: a public endorsement for its campaign on bank debt relief and confirmation that the new socialist government has become its most useful European ally.
It has been quite a turnaround. Ireland and France may be close by tradition, but it’s an open secret that the relationship had been badly strained during Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency.
French sympathy for Ireland after the economy’s collapse was always tinged with a sense that long-held, unheeded Parisian doubts about Ireland’s wisdom in embracing light-regulation liberalism – its choice of Boston over Berlin – had been in some way vindicated.
Of recent French presidents, Sarkozy had the least interest in Ireland. But it was the dispute over corporate tax, where Sarkozys relentless pressure met firm resistance from Dublin, that did most to sour relations.
The nadir came during Kenny’s first EU summit in Brussels, in March last year, when at a late-night meeting with Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel, he came under heavy pressure to agree a concession on Ireland’s company tax rate.
Kenny’s reference to a “Gallic spat” was a euphemism for a blazing row, and the relationship never recovered. Remarkably, this week’s visit was the first by a taoiseach to Ireland’s second- nearest neighbour in four years.
Things had begun to improve in Sarkozy’s final months in power. With Greece teetering on a cliff-edge, Germany and France felt they badly needed a programme country they could hold aloft as proof that the troika’s medicine could work. So by late last year they had agreed to a cut in the interest rate on EU loans to Ireland and put corporate tax on the back-burner. But underlying tensions didn’t go away, and it took a change of government in Paris to enable a real shift to occur.