French President Jacques Chirac led a French walkout from the opening session of the EU's annual spring summit on Thursday night when a fellow Frenchman committed the grave offence of speaking English.
Highlighting France's acute sensitivity towards the decline of the language which once dominated the EU, Chirac led three senior ministers out of the talks when Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, the French head of the European employers' group Unice, abandoned his mother tongue on the ground that English is "the language of business."
Chirac picked up his papers and left, with Foreign Affairs Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and Finance Minister Thierry Breton in tow. Gallic pride was soon restored when Jean-Claude Trichet, the French head of the European Central Bank, addressed the meeting in his mother tongue -- and Chirac led his ministers back.
The walkout set the scene for what was expected to be an inconclusive summit ending at lunchtime yesterday.
France and Germany are at loggerheads over the economic future of Europe after German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized French attempts to limit foreign investment. In the most serious Franco-German disagreement since her election as chancellor in November, Merkel dismissed a French initiative to promote "economic patriotism."
"We can only have an internal market when electricity flows freely and when we accept European champions and not just think nationally," the German chancellor said as she arrived at the summit in Brussels on Thursday.
Merkel, who has made it clear that she wants to open up the Franco-German alliance after the closed years of Chirac and the former German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, was aiming at the French on two fronts.
French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has pledged to champion "economic patriotism" by naming 11 French business sectors which should be shielded from foreign bidders.