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Czech Republic: Mutual Desire For 'Special Relationship' Drove French President's Visit

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 20 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Ever since French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's official trip to Prague was announced earlier this month, observers have posed the obvious question: Why did the Socialist leader chose the Czech Republic as the first Central European country to favor with a visit? After all, it was pointed out, Poland and Romania had far stronger historical and linguistic links with France. What's more, Franco-Czech relations have been cool for most of the 1990s.

With the completion of Jospin's 24-hour visit to Prague (Nov. 18-19), we now know the answer to the question. It is simple: Both countries, each for its own reasons, is seeking a so-called "special" or "privileged" relation with the other. It is also clear that the four-month-old Czech government of Social Democrat Milos Zeman made the initial overtures for warming up relations and that Jospin, who has been in office for a year-and-a-half, responded to them enthusiastically.

Jospin, who is not given to political platitudes, made the point publicly yesterday in remarks to the press after meeting with Czech President Vaclav Havel:

"This visit marks the desire of each side to enrich and deepen Franco-Czech relations. We want (relations) to be more fruitful for both of us in the future."

One non-political factor that helped the warm-up get underway was a four-year-old acquaintance between Jospin and Zeman. The Czech leader explained:

Zeman says that he first met Jospin in his Paris apartment 1n 1994. At the time, he adds, the two Socialists had no idea that four years later each would be running his country's government.

Between Zeman and his French counterpart, there is a visible personal warmth which, Jospin said, kept them talking over beer and slivovitz in a Prague tavern until one in the morning yesterday (Thursday). But beyond amicable personal relations, say both French and Czech officials, there are cogent political reasons for a rapprochement between the two countries.

The Czechs and the French have had, at best, a stand-off attitude toward each other since the late French President Francois Mitterrand said in Prague eight years ago that it would take what he described as "decades and decades" before the EU could admit Central and East European nations. The public remark, and even stronger ones in private by Mitterrand, led to an all-but public quarrel between him and Havel.

French officials, who requested anonymity, believe that the Zeman government has decided to change the country's long-time foreign-policy orientation. Under conservative Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, they say, the Czech Republic relied for support almost entirely on Germany --its biggest commercial partner-- and on the U.S. -- seen as its ultimate source of security. French officials also note that Klaus was often publicly contemptuous of the European Union. Now they, and some Czech officials as well, say that Zeman is moving to change much of that. He is down-grading somewhat Prague's relations with Bonn --even though it has a new Social Democrat-led government-- and seeking to put its relations with Washington on a normal keel.

Instead, the officials suggest, Zeman and his Foreign Minister Jan Kavan are looking to develop stronger ties with other countries, notably France, run by a Socialist of their own generation. They are both aware, the Czech officials point, that 11 of the 15 EU countries are run by Left governments like their own. That political reality, they are said to feel, could work in favor of the Czechs, the only one of the five Eastern front-runner EU candidates that is led by a social democrat.

Zeman and Kavan are also said to believe that more active support from France, one of the EU's founding nations and today among its most important members, could help accelerate Prague's entry into the 15-nation group. Zeman yesterday called France one of the EU's chief "motors," whose support for Prague's candidacy, he suggested, was essential. As a sign of Prague's new affection for Paris, he also announced that the Czech Republic was officially asking for observer status in the rather loose association of francophone nations and national groups that meets periodically to promote the spread of the French language.

Through much of the past eight years, Paris has tended to see the Czechs, in the blunt phrase of one French diplomat, as "crushed by Germany's economic weight and in the Americans' pocket." For its part Prague, wary of Paris since the quarrel with Mitterrand, has tended to see the French as what one official called "cynical and hypocritical."

With the arrival of Left governments in both nations, there is now an obvious mutual will to return to the days --before the 1938 Munich agreement-- when the Czechs and the French did enjoy a privileged relation. How successful Jospin and Zeman will be, in the face of EU and other geo-political realities, remains open to question.