Jacques Chirac, in the last week of October, called off the Anglo-French summit scheduled for December after angrily accusing British Prime Minister Tony Blair of speaking to him with extraordinary insolence over the future of the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Africa.  The French president told Mr. Blair, “You have been very rude, and I have never been spoken to like this before!” on October 25 at the E.U. enlargement summit in Brussels.

Indignant at a complicated $30-billion E.U. farm-subsidy deal made behind his back by France and Germany, Mr. Blair had bluntly told M. Chirac that he wanted to keep E.U. markets closed to developing countries and to block a new round of World Trade Organization talks.  He argued that the West should open the developed markets of Europe, which would require an end to production subsidies.

Mr. Blair’s dabbling in such francophile pursuits as frequenting bistros, drink-ing wine, and eating brie notwithstanding, it seems that he wants to follow in the footsteps of his more illustrious predecessors by subscribing to the Churchillian-Thatcherite dictum “Love America, bash France.”  He often goes over-board—so much so that, as Simon Jenkins put it in the Times of London, “If Genghis Khan were in the White House Mr. Blair would be praising his leadership qualities.”

Why did he do it?  First, because he enjoys playing the agonized moralist; that is why he urged Bill Clinton to bomb the Serbs even more zealously than Madeleine Albright did.  Britain would not have been much affected by Chirac’s attempt to shelter French farmers from the pending reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, but Blair’s beloved Third World commodity producers would have been.  The “disinterested” nature of the issue was enough to make Blair sanctimonious and indignant.  

The French may have expected London to be apologetic, but 10 Downing Street gleefully confirmed the facts of the incident.  It even leaked the details of Mr. Blair pedantically reading the relevant paragraphs from the 1999 Berlin Summit minutes to prove the Frenchman “plain wrong” and to embarrass him in front of other leaders.  Since Britain has the most focus-group-driven leader outside Washington, D.C., this nonchalance means that Mr. Blair was counting on his people’s latent phobias, rooted in history (“Wogs start at Calais”), to prop up his ratings in the run-up to the Iraqi escapade.

In view of France’s partial reluctance to join the war against Iraq with no questions asked, it is also possible that Mr. Blair was performing an unasked-for but nevertheless welcome service to his seniors in Washington—a bit like Bulgaria’s Todor Zhivkov attacking Chairman Mao even when Leonid Brezhnev did not specifically ask him to.

The tiff has brought relations between Britain and France to an unexpected low, with the cancellation of the summit at Le Touquet: “We need some time on both sides in order to ensure the good preparation for this important meeting,” the French statement said acidly.  But for M. Chirac, of all people, to feign injured innocence is hilarious: His ploy with Gerhard Schrö-der essentially sought to keep a third of the CAP subsidy in French coffers, enabling les paysants to keep adding to the mountains of unwanted beef and butter and to the lakes of unsold wine at European taxpayers’ expense.  In view of his own problems with Washington, following an election campaign critically dependent on anti-American rhetoric, the German chancellor was in no position to resist French mischief.

Decent people have no dog in this fight.  Mr. Blair may be irritating and often ridiculous, but M. Chirac is an unattractive man accurately described as “a liar and a thief” by Jean-Marie Le Pen.  The late president François Mitterand once said of Chirac that “This man is mad”; there is method, however, to his mad-ness: power.  Alain Madelin, ex-finance minister, declared that Chirac was “so keen to respect his promises that he makes the same ones at every election.”  (The famous “pocket-sized Napoleon” quip by Jörg Haider was unfair: Chirac is considerably taller than the famed Corsican.)

M. Chirac is too thick-skinned to mind all that, but he is seriously upset that, in the aftermath of Mr. Blair’s outburst, Schröder has decided to run for cover.  Chirac may have been irritated that Blair was rude, but he finds it intolerable that Blair was apparently successful in torpedoing the farm-subsidy ploy.  Thirty billion dollars is a lot of money, and that explains the scene worthy of the great days of the Paris-Berlin Axis under de Gaulle or Giscard d’Estaing.

Perhaps the most endearing fallout from this whole episode is a barrage of francophobia from Britain’s gutter press.  Every cliché has been deployed, including cartoon characters with dirty berets, striped vests, and dangling cigarettes.  Some atavisms die hard, and we have not had a good Anglo-French fight in almost two centuries.