Meeting of minds between Kenny and Hollande in Paris
“IT’S BEEN over 30 years since a member of my party actually came here as taoiseach,” Enda Kenny remarked as he stood alongside French president François Hollande in the courtyard of the Élysée Palace, basking in the warm afternoon sunshine – and in the glow of a relationship that has been brought in from the cold.
Not since autumn 2008, after all, had a taoiseach paid an official visit to Paris. With Nicolas Sarkozy in power and Ireland’s corporate tax rate a major preoccupation for his government, it was an open secret that ties at the top were under strain.
What a difference six months can make. Hollande and Kenny don’t speak a shared language. They come from opposite ends of radically different political cultures. But since coming to power in May, the French president has positioned himself as one of Ireland’s most influential champions.
“With Enda, we have a personal relationship that helps these conversations that interest our two countries,” Hollande said.
Old hands would have noticed that Kenny’s meeting at the Élysée, at 45 minutes, was at the upper end of what any world leader is offered. When the Taoiseach’s car pulled up, the president walked down the steps to greet him – a gesture that, in the arcane, quasi-monarchical codes of Élysée protocol, means the guest is being treated as a good friend.
The mood was relaxed – even light-hearted at times. When the Élysée interpreter was thrown by a reporter’s question to Kenny in Irish, Hollande raised a hand to reassure her. “It’s okay,” he said with a smile. “I understood.”
But there were serious issues on the agenda yesterday, and on these the Irish side got exactly what they came looking for. First was an explicit declaration of support from Hollande for Ireland’s campaign to win an EU deal to ease it huge bank debt burden. “La spécificité irlandaise,” the president repeated again and again like a catchphrase.
Ireland was a “special case” and had to be treated as such. French officials have been saying for weeks that, despite German resistance, a deal on “legacy” debt is still on. This was the first time Hollande had done so in public.
And what was it that made Ireland’s case special, Kenny was asked. “Ireland was the first and only country which had a European position imposed upon it in the sense that there wasn’t the opportunity, if the government so wished, to do it their way by burning bondholders,” he replied.
As Hollande has put more distance between Paris and Berlin, he has pivoted closer to Spain and Italy – and, indirectly, to Ireland, where his election pledge to reorient the European response to the debt crisis towards growth over austerity chimed with the domestic mood.
Yesterday, he praised Dublin for making growth and jobs the themes of its EU presidency, which begins in January. He said the two countries were “in complete agreement” on the forthcoming talks over the EU’s seven-year budget – notably on that old Franco-Irish unifier, agricultural policy.
From the Élysée, Kenny travelled to Sial, one of the world’s biggest food fairs, to mark the launch of a Bord Bia initiative for Irish exporters.
The political relationship may have stalled in recent years, but the strong trade links have been powering ahead. France is the now the leading euro zone market for Irish food and drink, with one of the world’s biggest appetites for Irish meat, seafood and whiskey. If the exporters are looking for a slogan, they could do worse than that elusive catchphrase on which Ireland’s hopes for a debt deal may now turn: La spécificité irlandaise.