- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

BRUSSELS — French President Jacques Chirac yesterday defended his eyebrow-raising exit from an EU summit session, accusing the French head of Europe’s employer union of insulting French pride by daring to speak in English.

An ardent defender of the French tongue, Mr. Chirac said he was stunned to hear English on the lips of the Frenchman in a speech at the two-day European summit.

“I was deeply shocked that a Frenchman would speak at the council table in English,” he told journalists, explaining for the first time his abrupt walkout when the summit opened on Thursday.

“That’s the reason why the French delegation and myself left, so as not to have to listen to that,” he added.

Mr. Chirac’s surprise exit was one of the few incidents to spice up an otherwise staid summit focused on agreeing to a joint EU energy strategy and reviving the bloc’s economy.

When Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, head of the UNICE employers federation, started his speech to the EU’s 25 leaders, Mr. Chirac interrupted and asked why he was speaking in English, according to a French official.

“I’m going to speak in English because that is the language of business,” replied Mr. Seilliere, former chief of the French employers’ group MEDEF, which has been at odds with the government recently.

Raising eyebrows among his EU counterparts, Mr. Chirac stood up and left the session with Finance Minister Thierry Breton and Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy in tow.

Mr. Chirac, 73, and his ministers returned only after Mr. Seilliere finished his address.

Other European leaders shrugged off Mr. Chirac’s attempt to defend French pride.

“Europe has other worries and it’s a waste of time to have responded to such questions,” said Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who is usually a stout Francophile.

Taking a jab at Mr. Seilliere, he added: “I cannot cease to be amazed that while our French friends invite us to speak French, many of their top officials not in government are more than happy to speak in approximative English.”

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, claiming not to have noticed Mr. Chirac’s departure, tried to take a lighter tone about the incident, saying with a smile: “People do get up and go for all sorts of reasons.”

To the consternation of Paris, English has overtaken French as the European Union’s lingua franca, especially since it welcomed 10 new member states, mostly former Soviet communist bloc states in Eastern Europe, in May 2004.

French speakers regularly complain that official documents increasingly appear in English and only later in French.

Although English, French and German are the official languages of EU institutions, by tradition EU leaders speak in their own language at summits using simultaneous interpretation.

The Brussels correspondent for Britain’s Euroskeptic Sun newspaper, Michael Lea, approached Mr. Chirac at the end of yesterday’s press conference with a small English-language phrase book for tourists.

“This is a present from your friends at the Sun,” Mr. Lea told the French leader, who first looked puzzled, then smiled as he slipped the little tome into his pocket.

The tabloid waged a provocative campaign against Mr. Chirac in the run-up to the Iraq conflict in 2003, branding him “Le ver” or the worm.

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