Barnier carries the EU gospel to France's sceptical Deep South

 

SITTING on a hard metal chair on the stage of the Lyce'e Jean Monnet in Montpellier, Michel Barnier (46) could have been a chat show host. The Minister for European Affairs looks like a younger version of Paul Newman and there were feminine giggles in the packed auditorium.

"Ignore the cameras," he said when students were at first too shy to ask questions. "Pretend you're in class."

A student called Jeremie ventured the first question, on EMU.

"Here in Languedoc-Roussillon, you know the problems caused by the devaluation of the Italian lira and the Spanish peseta a few years ago," Barnier said. "Italian tomatoes cost 30 per cent less, and French people were buying Italian tomatoes. The single currency will prevent devaluations."

The Maastricht referendum barely squeaked through four years ago and the French government doesn't want any more bad surprises. So the French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, asked Barnier to explain European integration to the French.

"We had a lot of discussions about how to do it," one of Barnier's staff said. "Some of us were afraid we'd set off religious wars between pro and anti-Europeans."

Michel Barnier's faith carried the day, and the "national dialogue for Europe" was born in October. The "dialogue" will culminate on May 9th - Europe Day - with the "national assizes", a sort of High Mass for European converts. By then, Barnier's office will have organised 780 meetings around France on European culture, citizenship, the single currency, EU band enlargement. He will have preached the good word in no fewer than 26 French cities, including such far-flung corners of the Union as Pointe-a-Pitre and Cayenne, more than 4,000 miles from the European land-mass.

Barnier is a rising star in President Jacques Chirac's Rally for the Republic party. His weekly appearances for the EU cause are making him a household name across France. European integration is, he says, "the last great human adventure of this century". He hopes to enlist 1,000 youth volunteers and 1,000 "witnesses for Europe" - professors and influential personalities - who will "share their European experience and convictions".

One Montpellier student said she was afraid of competition between the US and the EU. "Don't be afraid of the word competition'," Barnier answered. There was just a hint of old-fashioned Gaullist anti-Americanism: "I prefer competition with the US to domination by the US." He added: "We in Europe cannot continue being political sub-contractors for the Americans."

The Languedoc-Rousillon region, one of France's poorest, has received four billion francs (£482 million) from the EU over the past decade. Nearly £8 million of that went to the oyster farm at Bouzigues, which was almost destroyed by pollution eight years ago. Yves Marchand, the local member of parliament, was waiting in Bouzigues to remind Barnier that he was tasting oysters in the wilderness. "As Minister of European Affairs you have done more than anyone else to obtain subsidies for this region that criticises Maastricht, that doesn't vote European," Marchand said.

How did Marchand explain Languedoc's recalcitrance? "There's an old reflex against Paris, against the north, which is considered the invader," he said. In 1907, Georges Clemenceau sent troops to put down a rebellion in Languedoc. "There's no recognition here of what Europe has done, because people are ingrates. The Communist left is very strong on the ground here, and it is very anti-European." Fear of competition from Spanish and Italian wines has inspired doubts among local wine growers.

At Montpellier's Agropolis Museum, also built with EU funds, Barnier strode in to the strains of Beethoven's Ode to Joy, the EU hymn. "Europe is now. Let's talk about it," said the logo on the podium. "Nothing is worse for Europe than silence," Barnier said. "Why do people only talk about Europe when there's a crisis like mad cow disease, or a war in Bosnia, or a referendum like Maastricht? I want people to talk about Europe every day, naturally."