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How Molière Plays in Brussels


The spectacularly unimpressive debut of the EU’s post-Lisbon “foreign secretary,” Briton Catherine Ashton, has opened an abyss between the various national governments and the EU’s expense-sponging, regulation-chasing, pompous, obscure, and meaningless garage-fillers in Brussels.

It’s also given the French occasion to try to hijack the EU’s diplomatic apparatus by pushing for the creation of a “secretary general” to serve as the hand that operates the Ashton puppet. The French hate the fact that the EU’s diplomatic service was given to the British. So the plot is to make Ashton as marginal as she seems to want to be. Sarkozy’s choice for puppet-master is Pierre Vimont, the current French ambassador to the U.S.

This all normally would be filed under the “who on Earth cares?” category, except for the hilarious way the story is playing in the Euro press.

According to Libération, Ashton, playing a hopeless imposter, fervently hopes for somebody to be appointed to tell her what she’s doing and what to say about it. That has a certain logic, in view of her work thus far.

But the story in Le Nouvel Observateur is slightly different. In this version, despite the fact that Ashton, like many Brits, butchers what the paper calls the “language of Molière,” she plays Tartuffe perfectly. This hasn’t escaped the notice of the usually critical Parisian conniving class, so to her performance in Brussels, they are supplying a helpful subtext and turning the entire episode into a comédie française.

Pierre Lellouche, the wry, Tunisian-born secretary of state for Europe, wrote this act. He invited Ashton to spend a total-immersion week at a fancy language center in Avignon learning French. When Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was asked about it, he endorsed Lellouche’s droll invitation, adding that he thought Avignon was “a very pretty town.”

According to the BBC, Lellouche also invited the European Parliament’s Polish president, Jerzy Buzek, but his office said no thanks, he already speaks German. Not Ashton. She played her role perfectly and took the invitation seriously: She’s checking her calendar, her spokesman said. “She really wants to improve.”  Learning French is as good a place to start as any. Lesson one: The French word for “irony” is ironie.

Meanwhile, the British papers have a view backstage and are whispering to Ashton, who has clearly forgotten her lines. Reports the Times:

A turf war is being fought in Brussels over Lady Ashton’s empire and the MEPs believe that she needs three political deputies to avoid being weakened by the bureaucracy of the EU member states. Lady Ashton believes that a secretary-general would act like a British permanent secretary, helping the EEAS to create a clearer EU foreign policy.

“This can be interpreted as too much power in one person but on the other hand either you have someone in charge or you do not,” a spokesman for Lady Ashton said. “Someone has to be in charge and it is best if they are clearly identified.”

Especially if they are not identified as Catherine Ashton, who perhaps reads English the way she speaks French.


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