France’s Europe Day blues replace decades of red-blooded celebrations

Since 2004, the number of French people who say they lack confidence in the EU has risen from 40 to 56 per cent

A staff member places photos on a wall showing portraits of European Union citizens outside the EU Commission building during Europe Day 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Reuters

A staff member places photos on a wall showing portraits of European Union citizens outside the EU Commission building during Europe Day 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Reuters

Fri, May 10, 2013, 01:00

French presidents and prime ministers used to celebrate Europe Day with fervour. After all, it was then French foreign minister Robert Schuman who launched what would become the European Union on May 9th, 1950, by calling on France, Germany and their neighbours to pool coal and steel production.

On Europe Day eight years ago, in the sumptuous reception rooms of the foreign ministry, before a crowd of high-ranking dignitaries, the actor Gérard Depardieu declaimed Victor Hugo’s 1849 prediction that “the day will come when ... all of you, nations of the continent, will meld together closely in a superior unity and you will constitute a European fraternity”.

Since 2004, the number of French people who say they lack confidence in the EU has risen from 40 to 56 per cent. And Depardieu has become a tax exile. Yesterday, Le Monde newspaper’s front page headline detailed three reforms demanded by the EU Commission: that France spend less on pensions, reduce the cost of labour and open up to more competition.


No speeches
Little wonder that the French president and prime minister did nothing to mark Europe Day. Nor did Mayor Bertrand Delanoë venture out of the Hôtel de Ville for the opening of Paris’s two-day “European village”. Instead, the deputy mayor, Pierre Schapira, greeted French European affairs minister Thierry Repentin and, in honour of the Irish EU presidency, the delegate Minister of State for Arts and Heritage Dinny McGinley and Ambassador Paul Kavanagh. There were no public speeches at France’s main Europe Day event.

Mr Repentin put a brave face on France’s Europe blues. “There has got to be at least one day when we talk positively, with a smile, with music and young people, about Europe,” he said. “C’est la fête!”

Europeans have forgotten what it was like before the single currency, and when every EU country maintained border controls, the minister continued. He hoped citizens would learn to love Europe again if new measures promoted by France take hold this summer: €6 billion in regional aid for unemployed youths; important EU-financed infrastructure projects; a 40 per cent “boost” for research and development; food and energy aid for those suffering in the crisis ...

At the Irish stand, Mr McGinley invited Mr Repentin to visit his native Donegal. Mr McGinley was to return to the town hall last night for a concert by Altan, intended to promote the Earagail festival in Donegal.

A hurley and sliotar were perched atop one of three exhibits by the husband and wife artist team Cleary and Connolly. “We are showcasing the best that’s in Europe: culture, tourism, trade,” Mr McGinley said. “The European project is not as popular with the ordinary citizen as it once was ... We are inclined, even at home, to blame Europe for some of our problems, but I think it’s unfair.”

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