- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 8, 2005

PARIS — France appears to be leading a contradictory policy when it comes to economic liberalization: As the center-right government pushes through unpopular reforms at home, French President Jacques Chirac is criticizing Brussels for heartlessly failing to defend the cause of European workers.

Neither stance is proving very popular.

On Thursday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso offered a very public rebuke to the French president without singling him out.

“We all have a duty not to cut the branch on which we are sitting — not to attack European institutions because Europe is more necessary than ever,” Mr. Barroso told the French newspaper Le Monde in an interview.

The cause of the public discord is a plan by U.S. giant Hewlett-Packard Co. to cut thousands of jobs in Europe, including more than 1,200 in France.

The looming cuts have stirred a furor in France, where Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin suggested that the American company refund government aid it received in developing its operations in France. Hewlett Packard says it received none.

Even the mayor of Grenoble, where HP’s research headquarters is based, flew to California last month to plead the Gallic cause to HP executives. The pressure appears to have had some effect: The company subsequently suggested that the size of the cuts is still under negotiation.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chirac turned his sights on the European Commission Tuesday, suggesting it cares little about HP’s European staff, who would soon be getting unemployment checks. The commission, he said, does not feel “implicated, concerned or believe that it has something to say” about the looming job cuts.

Rather, he suggested in remarks at the World Trade Organization, the commission was “going from one concession to another.”

Those remarks appear particularly odd given the present situation in France.

The center-right government is engaged in so-far fruitless talks with union leaders over its plans to privatize Corsica’s SNCM ferry service — which is expected to eliminate 400 of the company’s 2,400 jobs.

In an interview on Europe 1 radio Wednesday, Finance Minister Thierry Breton — a former private-sector wunderkind — stood firm on the government’s intention to sell 75 percent of the state-owned ferry line.

This summer, too, Mr. Breton instituted new measures making it easier for French companies to hire — but also to fire — new workers. These and other economic reforms drew hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets of France, during a national strike on Tuesday.

Even as it talks a somewhat free-market line at home, France’s interventionist stance abroad has also been apparent on another hot-button issue: A U.S.-Europe trade fight over subsidizing their homegrown aircraft industries, Boeing and Airbus Industrie.

France wants to continue, over U.S. objections, direct EU aid for developing the Airbus 350. That insistence, the International Herald Tribune reported Thursday, may scuttle efforts to settle the standoff.

Mr. Chirac’s latest criticism of Mr. Barroso, however, underscores differences among EU members on a host of issues including, economic ones. In May, France became the first country to reject the proposed EU constitution in a referendum. Concerns about job security and the disappearance of a “social Europe” were among the top reasons for the “no” vote.

While Mr. Chirac supported the EU charter, he is at odds with some European leaders — British Prime Minister Tony Blair in particular — over the future of the bloc’s economic and social policies. Mr. Blair, the current rotating president of the EU, is to host a summit on both matters this month.

In the interview with Le Monde, Mr. Barroso defended the commission, saying it seeks the interests of European workers and of Europe as a whole.

“The commission is reproached for failing to take strong initiatives to relaunch Europe, after the ‘no’ to the referendum in France and in the Netherlands,” he told the newspaper. “Who has placed employment at the head of the priorities of its mandate? It’s me and this commission.”

Mr. Barroso also warned against a “competition” among EU members embracing diverse social models during the upcoming roundtable on the issue.

“The confrontation would be sterile and counterproductive,” he told Le Monde. “We have several different models — in France, in Germany, in the United Kingdom, in the Scandinavian countries, in the Mediterranean countries, in the new member states.”

“But one could say there is one base of common values,” Mr. Barroso added, “the welfare state, social dialogue, the balance between economic efficiency and [social] cohesion.”

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