Who missed "a good opportunity to keep quiet" earlier this week? According to most European commentators—including a few French writers—the answer is Jacques Chirac. On Monday evening, at the end of a European Union summit about Iraq, the French president accused the "Atlanticist" EU applicant countries from Central and Eastern Europe of "infantile behavior," adding they had "missed a good opportunity to keep quiet. When you are in the family, after all, you have more rights than when you are asking to join and knocking on the door." (Chirac's original comment that the countries missed a chance "de se taire" was translated both "to shut up" or "to keep quiet." Was either translation wrong? "Se taire" is a polite verb meaning to stay silent or say nothing, but given the less-than-diplomatic tone in which the president delivered his remarks, the stronger "shut up" doesn't seem inaccurate.)
France's Le Figaro saw Chirac's outburst as a warning to EU hopefuls that France could still keep them out of the union. The paper quoted Chirac's comment at a press conference that, "it takes just one country not to ratify [EU enlargement] by referendum for the thing not to work." Thus far, none of the 15 current EU members have announced plans to hold a referendum, and it was assumed that they would endorse enlargement in less risky parliamentary votes. One of Chirac's aides told the paper, "There were no threats in the president's remarks … but if applicant countries think they can join Europe and benefit from its financial advantages without complying with its rules and political ways, they are very much mistaken. It was better to tell them this before they joined."
The EU pretenders took Chirac's slap with remarkable restraint. Slovakia's Pravda sniffed: "Neither Slovakia nor any other candidate country will enter the European Union to keep silent but in order to make their voice be heard more. … After enlargement, the European Union will be different. Less French or German, less Chirac's. But not worse for that." In the Czech Republic, Mlada Fronta Dnes said, "All Central European nations are used to the interpretation that some countries have more rights than others. They are used to furious tirades, followed by tanks. If Chirac wants to revive the spirit of Leonid Brezhnev and renew the doctrine of limited sovereignty, which means fewer rights for some countries, it is his own affair." Latvia's Neatkariga Rita Avize gave the French president a lesson in etiquette: "All right, Monsieur Chirac. Perhaps we are poor. Perhaps we were not raised properly. We do not know about wine and the various directions of avant-garde art. But we do not repay those who have helped us with ingratitude." (Translations in this paragraph courtesy of the BBC.)
In an editorial headlined "Arrogance," Libération said Chirac "made the same mistake as the American leaders … who force their partners to be 'with us or against us.' Arrogance is never a good policy." Libération said the easterners were wrong to rely on American goodwill, "But it is not by humiliating them nor by threatening them with reprisals that we will dissuade Poles, Czechs, and Baltic peoples from acting as America's Trojan horses to weaken Europe." Le Figaro counseled the French government to take the time to educate would-be EU members: "If we support a large Europe, rather than asking the candidates to stay silent, it would have been better to take the time to talk to them."
The British papers took the opportunity to diss the French. The Independent said: "The French must learn that the Poles, Czechs, Hungarians and other peoples of Eastern Europe are not second-class European citizens, and their opinions are as valid as those of their western cousins. President Chirac's intemperate attack on them was, sadly, typical of such patronising attitudes." An op-ed in the Daily Telegraph concluded: "Jacques Chirac has gone from the simply arrogant to the pathologically offensive. He has alienated the Americans in a way that will not be forgotten for a generation. But he has also now insulted the new Eastern European accession countries for European Union membership with a recklessness that is truly breathtaking."
The Sun, Britain's top-selling tabloid, declared, "Day by day, the shape of a new post-Iraq Europe is emerging. A line is being drawn between the nations who have principles and the nations who posture." Then it took off the gloves: "France and Germany are led by slippery, hypocritical creatures who shame their countries by sneering at America and Britain—the nations who freed them from the tyranny of Hitler." (The Financial Times reported that on Thursday, the Sun risked a $48,000 fine by publishing a special French edition, which blasted Chirac as a "worm" on its front cover. France's "insult laws" make it a criminal offense to disparage the president. According to the FT, even though French papers regularly refer to British Prime Minister Tony Blair as "un caniche" [a poodle], the Sun's special edition "was almost universally condemned for being unthinkably xenophobic.")