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France vs the EU: Bitter war of words escalates

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France vs the EU: Bitter war of words escalates
Jose Manuel Barroso appears in this photo montage to be aiming a slap in the direction of French minister Arnaud Montebourg. Photo: John Thys/Pierre Andrieu/AFP
16:19 CEST+02:00
An increasingly bitter slanging match between the members of the French government and EU chiefs escalated on Monday as EU Commission José Manuel Barroso compared France's socialist leaders to the far right for using Europe as a 'scapegoat' for its problems.

Just days ahead of a key European summit an increasingly bitter spat between EU chiefs and France appeared to be spiraling out of control on Monday.

In the latest barb that will no doubt hurt members of the Socialist government European Commission chief José Manuel Barroso denounced 'leftist chauvinists' comparing them to the far-right and also accused France of using Europe as a "scapegoat" for troubles at home.

"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," Barroso said.

"Some left-wing nationalists have exactly the same views as the far right," he said in a scathing riposte to comments by French Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg who had earlier accused Barroso of fuelling the rise of the far right.

Europe is "paralyzed," Montebourg told France Inter radio earlier the day.

"It does not respond to any aspirations of the people on the industrial front, on the economic front, on the budget front, and in the end that plays into the hands of all the ... anti-Europe parties in the EU," he said.

Despite the slanging match, Thomas Klau from the European Centre for Foreign Relations (ECFR) told The Local the spat was "more a war of words than substance" between the pair.

"What we can see in this latest exchange is two politicians who are short on moderation and principle and long on making opportunistic statements to make headlines and fuel public debate," Klau said.

Economist Christophe Blot from the French Economic Observatory also told The Local that the row was a "calculated political strategy" to serve their own purposes.

But Barroso is not alone against the French government. Lining up alongside him in Europe's corner is Frenchman and European Commissioner Michel Barnier, who is at the end of his tether with his compatriots.

"I've had it up to here with this and I say that with a degree of anger," Barnier said on Monday.

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

The recent war of words has its roots in France's bid to protect the European film and television industry from Hollywood dominance by stalling free-trade talks with the United States after which Barroso fanned the flames when he slammed France's stance as "reactionary".

French President François Hollande said he simply did not believe that Barroso could have made the comment while his Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti said the remarks were "absolutely lamentable".

Row escalates into debate on Europe

The argument, however, has since developed from a debate over the French film industry into a fiery discussion on the whole European Union project.

In response to Barroso's latest jibe, French Housing Minister Cécile Duflot took to the airwaves telling France Inter radio station that she now regarded Brussels as little more than "a form of police service that watches nations from a height, and which doesn't build for the future".

The rift between France and the EU in general, and Barroso and French government ministers in particular, has been simmering for weeks, however.

France falling out of love with EU

In May, Barroso irked many in France when he accused Europe’s second-biggest economy of “spitting in the wind” with its “anti-globalization stance.”

Klau says the theory doing the rounds in European circles is that Barroso is attacking France in order to garner US support for a future bid to earn a top job at NATO or the UN when his EU mandate comes to an end.

"It's a tongue in cheek conspiracy theory but there is a lot of suspicion that this is the rationale for Barroso's words," Klau said.

Earlier that month, a survey by the Pew Research Centre concluded that the mood of the French public towards Europe had drastically worsened in recent years.

“No European country is becoming more dispirited and disillusioned faster than France. In just the past year, the public mood has soured dramatically across the board,” Pew Research's study concluded.

For some experts, however, the negative attitude among the French towards Europe was not a big surprise.

"The French attitude towards the EU has been heading this way for the last ten years. They have been under pressure to follow a German economic model that they don't want to imitate," Ulrike Guerot, from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) told The Local at the time.

"France is a special country in terms of culture and traditions. Other European countries have adapted more quickly to globalization whereas France is still battling to keep its social and economic culture,” Guerot added.

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