Row between Barroso and Paris deteriorates

France will not take orders from Brussels, says French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault

French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault: “We believe in Europe, but we are not the yes men of Europe,” he said. Photograph: Christian Hartmann/Reuters

French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault: “We believe in Europe, but we are not the yes men of Europe,” he said. Photograph: Christian Hartmann/Reuters


Relations between Paris and José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, continued to deteriorate yesterday when prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said France would not take orders from Brussels. “We believe in Europe, but we are not the yes men of Europe,” he said.

Mr Ayrault had been asked to comment on statements made by his industry minister, Arnaud Montebourg, on Sunday night, in which he blamed Mr Barroso for the strong performance of the far right National Front in a byelection.

“Mr Barroso is the fuel of the National Front,” Mr Montebourg said. “He’s the fuel of [the populist Italian comedian turned politician] Beppe Grillo. I think the main reason for the rise of the National Front is the way the EU exerts pressure on democratically elected governments... They have institutionalised the EU as being against the peoples of Europe... The EU is paralysed. It doesn’t fulfil any popular aspirations....”

Mr Barroso responded angrily the following day in Brussels. “Some French leaders should abandon certain ambiguities vis-à-vis Europe and defend it more against nationalism, populism and chauvinism,” he said. “When they attack globalisation, economic reforms and Europe and her institutions, the sovereignists of left and right have the same agenda.”

Relations between Paris and Brussels soured at the end of May when president François Hollande reacted angrily to recommendations attached by the European Commission to the two-year extension on meeting budget deficit targets accorded to Paris. “The commission can’t dictate what we should do,” Mr Hollande said. The outburst went down well in opinion polls, a presidential aide noted.

Veto threat
Things worsened when the French threatened to veto the commission’s mandate to negotiate a trade agreement with the US unless television and cinema – the French exception culturelle – were excluded from the talks. Mr Barroso called the French position “reactionary”.

Bruno Le Roux, the socialist group leader in the National Assembly, yesterday called Mr Barroso “very ideological”. Asked if he wanted Mr Barroso to step down, the socialist deputy replied: “I would be pleased if it happened tomorrow.”

A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that support for the EU has declined most dramatically in France, from 43 per cent in 2009 to 22 per cent this year. Brussels-bashing was long the preserve of National Front leader Marine Le Pen. But prominent French politicians of all stripes have participated in recent days.

The former conservative prime minister Alain Juppé criticised Mr Barroso, saying he “has a vision of the world that dates from around 1958”, when borders were opened within the common market. “But today the world is radically different,” Mr Juppé said. “We’re in competition with countries like China, Brazil, India. That should give us a totally different vision of competition.”

Most wounding for Mr Barroso was that Jacques Delors (87), a former president of the commission and the pre-eminent surviving European statesman in France, also criticised the commission. At a socialist party “forum of progressive Europeans” on June 15th, Mr Delors said the “punitive” and “alienating” commission behaves like “a mean, hard professor” when it “preaches” to heads of state.

French officials describe Mr Barroso as a careerist “ultra-liberal” who does the bidding of les anglo-saxons in the hope of securing a post as UN secretary general or head of Nato when he completes his second term as president of the commission in 2014. French socialists were at odds with chancellor Angela Merkel in April, but they now claim she agrees with them on the “inefficacy” of Barroso.

Jean Quatremer, the Brussels correspondent of Libération newspaper, says Mr Barroso proved his “fervent Atlanticism” in 2003. As prime minister of Portugal, Mr Barroso received George W Bush, Tony Blair and José Maria Aznar in the Azores, where they decided to launch the invasion of Iraq – which France opposed. Calling Barroso “the taliban of free markets”, Quatremer said his responsibility for the “present outbreak of fever” between himself and Paris was obvious.

Only one French politician, EU commissioner Michel Barnier, has sided with Mr Barroso. French officials say Mr Barnier wants to succeed Mr Barroso at the commission, or become president of the European parliament if the right wins the May 2014 European elections.