BRUSSELS (AP) — France stood at the cradle of the European Union and brought it back from crisis time and again — but now it’s the French who are turning against the creature they helped conceive after World War II.
A spat that started over a fervent Gallic defense of film subsidies in the face of a globalized Hollywood has mushroomed this week into a dispute that reflects larger troubles with France’s economy, and growing frustration with the way an ever-more powerful Brussels is managing the EU.
The dispute is the main undercurrent of an EU summit Thursday and Friday, where French President Francois Hollande will come face to face with the head of the EU’s powerful executive commission, Jose Manuel Barroso.
Hollande tried to downplay the controversy at the start of the summit. “We are talking about European policies. Personalities are only secondary,” he said entering the summit headquarters.
A fight between France and the EU will always stand out though.
“A large part of the politics of Europe has been molded by France. So now, we are facing this paradox,” said Hendrik Vos, a professor and expert on European affairs at Ghent University.
The paradox is fueled by the economic crisis, during which Barroso’s European Commission has imposed hard austerity on member states. To some in Hollande’s Socialist government, it has turned the EU into a cold-hearted beast that forces governments to serve the fat cats of the financial markets at the expense of workers and the common man.
President Hollande is suffering from sagging popularity, France’s rising unemployment and a new recession. It makes for a poisonous political mix that has claimed diplomatic niceties as its first victim.
For months, frustration in Paris had been mounting over the insistence of the European Commission to include film and other cultural subsidies in free trade negotiations with the United States. Some French voices suggested that the EU trade negotiator was working more with the Americans than the French.
Then, the Commission recommended harsh medicine for France to revive its economy. This hit hard in a nation that still considers itself as a global and essential power, unaccustomed to having someone else say what it should do.
It seems the political beast that France helped conceive is now turning against its creator. Suddenly grand rhetoric turned against Brussels.
France’s Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg spoke Sunday of “this European ruling class, which doesn’t notice that the European Union is the only region in the world that organized its own recession in a way, when everywhere in the world there’s growth.”
He said this “Brussels-style sickness will be fatal for Europeans” and added for good measure that Barroso “is the fuel of the National Front” far-right party, arguing that EU policies are driving voters to the nationalist fringes.
For Barroso, this proved too much. He counterattacked, saying that “it would be good if some political leaders understand that it is not by attacking Europe, by making the Commission a scapegoat for difficulties that they will get very far.”
On Wednesday, the French government spokeswoman said Montebourg’s “frankness” may be grating, but that “the heart of his comments … are comments that we share.”
Compounding France’s problems is the fact that the longstanding axis linking Paris to Berlin is showing signs of strain. The relationship between conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel — whose country is increasingly calling the shots at summits like the one this week — and the leftist Hollande is weaker than under Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy.
At the same time, France’s confrontational stance comes at a time when Barroso’s Commission is facing pressure from many sides, with struggling southern nations picking on the EU for forcing them into choking budget cuts that helped push youth unemployment to unprecedented levels.
Even the Netherlands, one of the six original EU members, is now saying “enough is enough” when it comes to further integration and centralization.
“The time for an ‘ever-closer union’ in the EU at all levels is a thing of the past,” the government said in a statement last week.
The two-day summit opening Thursday is showing some signs of change in the air that could benefit France.
After years of being dominated by the free-market, debt-cutting and austerity mantra to pull the continent out of recession, the summit will be looking at measures to ease unemployment with government support, even if the funds underpinning the initiative still look paltry compared with the task at hand.
“Where it was austerity and savings the past few years, we will see at the summit much attention for jobs for youngsters and growth stimuli,” said Vos.
Perhaps Hollande should take heart that the pendulum is slowly swinging back.
Angela Charlton, based in Paris, contributed to this report.