Chirac in public row with Sarkozy on spending cuts

22nd April 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 22 (AFP) - President Jacques Chirac has asked his cash-strapped government to avoid imposing cost cuts on the foreign ministry so that France can maintain its role on the world stage, officials said Thursday.

PARIS, April 22 (AFP) - President Jacques Chirac has asked his cash-strapped government to avoid imposing cost cuts on the foreign ministry so that France can maintain its role on the world stage, officials said Thursday.

Chirac's office confirmed a report in Le Monde newspaper that the president had written a letter to Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin urging leniency in any cuts in foreign ministry spending.

"France needs to maintain a strong analysis and intervention capability as well as a world presence," Chirac wrote in the letter, excerpts of which the newspaper published.

"We are seeing a weakening of our policies of cultural, scientific and university cooperation, the blocking of many of our bilateral cooperation programmes, particularly in Africa, the deterioration of our properties abroad and a serious lack of morale among our diplomatic and consular personnel," he said.

Chirac warned against seeing the foreign ministry's duties as "a vector of superfluous expenses" and said any further cuts to the ministry's budget of EUR 4.2 billion (USD 5 billion) would be "out of proportion with its political cost" and would damage France's standing.

"Our partners are questioning a policy where declarations are not followed up by corresponding actions," he said.

The newspaper noted that the letter appeared to be a shot across the bows of Nicolas Sarkozy, the newly appointed finance minister who is seen as Chirac's chief rival in 2007 presidential elections.

Sarkozy, who has become France's most popular politician after overseeing a crime crackdown in his previous job as interior minister, has told all government ministries that they must freeze spending at 2003 levels. No credits would be extended, he said.

But the foreign ministry, which is central to Chirac's area of responsibility as French head of state, has become especially active in the past two years, particularly in the wake of the Paris-Washington confrontation over the US-led war on Iraq.

Many of those employed in France's diplomatic network - second in the world only to that of the United States - took the unprecedented move of twice going on strike in December to protest insufficient finances.

Even though domestically France is struggling to get its public deficit back under the three percent of gross domestic product allowed in a pact underpinning the euro, Chirac has been keen to ensure his country continues to play a key role internationally.

He has, for instance, made moves to establish a television network later this year aimed at the rest of the world that has been dubbed "CNN a la francaise".

It has been suggested that the mooted network - although nominally independent - would come under the responsibility of the foreign ministry and that it would give the government an opportunity to present its view on world affairs.

Another newspaper, Liberation, said the president's ambition of trying to have it both ways - spending big while keeping an election promise to reduce taxes - gave Sarkozy the opening he needed to highlight the contradiction and embarrass Chirac.

The tussle started with the defence ministry, the other portfolio directly answerable to Chirac, when Sarkozy last week said it must freeze EUR 1 billion (USD 1.2 billion) in its budget.

That is one-quarter of the savings he is asking from all the government to keep spending within the total budget of USD 283.7 billion.

Much of the targeted funds at the defence ministry go to the deployment of thousands of French troops in Afghanistan, Haiti, Ivory Coast, and the Balkans - all operations strongly backed by Chirac.

The defence ministry on Friday hit back, with spokesman Jean-Francois Bureau saying: "The commitments of the French military are the commitments of France. This dimension our our policies and influence has to be taken into account in all budgetary evaluations."

Raffarin, in a statement, said that any cuts to defence ministry money would be subject to "intense discussion".


© AFP

                                                Subject: French news

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