Brussels Official, Criticizing France, Turns Up Heat on a Tense Relationship

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PARIS -- The French budget deficit is rising. President François Hollande is at historical lows in the polls. His divided Socialist Party placed third behind the far-right National Front in a parliamentary by-election. And if government ministers are to be believed, all these difficulties are caused by Brussels -- the European Commission and its president, José Manuel Barroso.

To some degree, the squabbling reflects the current economic and political strains in France. But it also highlights the longstanding tensions between national governments and the European Union bureaucracy, which has taken on an especially powerful role since the Continent's financial crisis upended politics and economies. That tension is stoking ideological passions on the left and the right across Europe, with potentially critical implications, at a time when popular skepticism about the European experiment is running high.

In this case, the problem began with an interview that Mr. Barroso, a center-right former Portuguese prime minister, gave to The New York Times just before the Group of 8 summit meeting in Northern Ireland. The issue was whether France would block the beginning of talks on a free-trade agreement between the United States and the European Union over its "cultural exception" -- its effort to promote domestic film, television and audiovisual productions through subsidies and quotas.

Mr. Barroso called the French vow to block the talks ill-judged and French criticism of globalization "reactionary," harming the goal of cultural diversity rather than protecting it. He said the perceived threat from the United States was overblown by those who "have an anti-global agenda" and added, "It's part of this anti-globalization agenda that I consider completely reactionary." He said Europe could not be sealed off. "Some say they belong to the left, but in fact they are culturally extremely reactionary."

Mr. Barroso, himself a former young Maoist, is unlikely to get a third term as commission president next year, and his criticism of the French left was neither original nor especially harsh.

But his comments about France created an immediate and loud reaction in France, with criticism from Mr. Hollande and his culture minister, Aurélie Filippetti, as well as the far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen and the leftist minister Arnaud Montebourg. Less than a year before European parliamentary elections, which are expected to reflect deep anti-Brussels sentiment in many nations, Mr. Barroso has become a symbol for the kind of Brussels bashing that is feeding both far-right and far-left political tension in France and elsewhere in Europe.

The Socialist Party was eliminated from a runoff by the National Front in a by-election in southwest France, and after the seat was narrowly won on Sunday night by the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, Mr. Montebourg said: "Mr. Barroso is the fuel of the French National Front, that's the truth. He is the fuel of Beppe Grillo," referring to the leader of the populist Five Star Movement in Italy, which won a quarter of the vote of the lower house of Parliament in February's election.

Mr. Montebourg, who himself ran for the presidency on a platform of "deglobalization" and is the minister for industrial renewal, said: "The European Union is paralyzed. It does not respond to any of the people's aspirations in the industrial, economic or budgetary fields and in the end it provides a cause to all the anti-European parties."

Ms. Le Pen, exulting in her far-right party's strong showing, herself called Mr. Barroso "a catastrophe for our country and our continent" and a symptom of "a European system gone mad."

In an editorial, Le Monde said, "Mr. Barroso, you are neither loyal nor respectful." Le Point said Europe did not need friends like Mr. Barroso, while the business newspaper Les Échos complained about "the Europe of invective" doing nothing to advance the debate.

Mr. Barroso said at first through a spokesman that he was not criticizing the French government, but those in France who have those views. Of course, a number of them are indeed in the government, which helps explain the reaction.

Then he waded back into the fray. At a news conference on Monday, he said, "It would be good if some politicians understood that they will not get very far by attacking Europe and trying to turn it into a scapegoat for their problems." He then added, "Some left-wing nationalists have exactly the same views as the far right."

In a statement, the European Commission said French politicians should defend Europe "against nationalism, populism and jingoism" instead of "attacking globalization."

The Frenchman who is European commissioner for the internal market, Michael Barnier, a former center-right agricultural minister, told France 2 television that Mr. Montebourg's "absurd" remarks were the latest attempt by France under the Socialists to "shirk its responsibilities."

But the Socialists "won't be shirking for very much longer because the moment of truth will arrive at some point; it's arriving for the minister," said Mr. Barnier, citing Germany's better economy "under the same commission."

Mr. Barnier said, "I've had enough of hearing ministers in my country, politicians from left and right, saying that it is all somebody else's fault."

Mr. Barnier's statements struck some as odd, given that he was fiercely protectionist as Nicolas Sarkozy's agriculture minister, defending restrictions on genetically modified food and a ban on American chicken because it was bathed in chlorine to kill bacteria.

The Paris-Brussels spat continues and has moved beyond the cultural exception, of course, reflecting the difficulties of a Socialist government that finds itself caught in a triple-dip recession, with record unemployment and rising budget deficits, despite getting two years' grace from the same European Commission to meet budget deficit targets. And Mr. Hollande now faces the delicate task of overhauling his nation's pension system without sparking national strikes and worker unrest.

France's Socialist Party has always been ambivalent about Europe, having split badly in 2005 over a referendum on a European constitution, which failed. Mr. Hollande favored the constitution, while the current foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, was a leader of the opposition. Mr. Hollande has recently said he supports a closer political union of the nations that use the euro, including a permanent president -- considered a shift in traditional French views.

But the more left-wing element of his party and government are deeply reluctant to give any more power to Brussels, especially over the economy and the labor market.

Pascal Lamy, a Socialist who heads the World Trade Organization and is considered a dark-horse candidate for prime minister, on Tuesday criticized both Mr. Barroso and Mr. Montebourg for "exaggerated" and "simplistic" views. But he saved his real fire for Mr. Montebourg.

"I think the thesis of deglobalization is a reactionary thesis, like all those theses that call for a return to the past," Mr. Lamy told Europe 1 radio. "What matters is not the past but the future."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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