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.

By the time Hollande sent his message to Dublin last February, it was looking increasingly likely that he would defeat Sarkozy. Sources on both sides say lines of communication then opened between Dublin and the socialist camp.

Irish officials cultivated relationships with prospective ministers and pressed Ireland’s case at every opportunity. On the campaign trail, Hollande carefully calibrated his statements on Ireland’s referendum on the EU fiscal treaty, which was taking place around the same time.

Then, on the night of Hollande’s win, in May, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore flew to Paris in his capacity as head of the socialists’ sister party and joined in the celebrations at party headquarters and the Bastille. Having been snubbed by Merkel and other European leaders during the campaign, the Hollande camp say the gesture from Dublin didn’t go unnoticed.

With a new president in the Élysée, Dublin and Paris found themselves increasingly on common ground. Hollande and Kenny may come from opposite ends of very different political cultures, but both men are more pragmatic, notably on economic policy, than the ideological centres of gravity in their respective parties.

Both are career politicians who rose to their current positions relatively late, having seen off much-fancied rivals and having been underestimated by many – including within their own parties. Their low-key personal styles are quite similar.

Above all, circumstances brought them together. The French president’s desire to reorient Europe’s response to the debt crisis towards growth over austerity chimed with Irish concerns after years of deep budget cuts.

Whereas Sarkozy had taken a strategic decision to align himself with Merkel, believing it was imperative to sustain the perception of distance between Paris and the struggling “Club Med” at a time when France’s weak financial position left it exposed to contagion from the south, Hollande felt no need to cling so tightly to Berlin.

Instead, he has pivoted France closer to the positions of Spain, Italy – and Ireland. And with talks on the seven-year EU budget intensifying in recent months, France has had another reason to work closely with a partner that it values as a like-minded defender of the Common Agricultural Policy.

The corporate tax issue hasn’t gone away, and Dublin will be well aware that socialist French governments have in the past been the most ardent opponents of Ireland’s tax regime. But neither the Élysée nor the finance ministry is pushing it. For now at least, France and Ireland are locked in an embrace they both have every incentive to maintain.

Ruadhán Mac Cormaic is Paris correspondent

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