France and Spain leave history behind and try to mend fences

The Franco-Spanish summit held in Madrid this week put an end to an age-old case of mutual distrust and rivalry in the European family. For Spaniards, the presence of French President Francois Mitterrand, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, and a bevy of ministers meant more than just a top-level meeting. Analysts here say they see the summit as signaling Spain's promotion to the rank of France's privileged partners, such as Britain, Germany, and Italy.

And, they say, it is a sign of success for Prime Minister Felipe Gonz'alez, who has been pushing for Spain's political and economic integration into Europe.

Paris and Madrid have had a tense relationship over the past 12 years since former French President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing attended King Juan Carlos's coronation in 1975 at the end of the Franco regime.

As Spain's young democracy grappled with terrorism and the threat of a military coup, Spaniards found it hard to accept France's granting of asylum to suspected Basque terrorists from across the border.

Nor did Spain appreciate French reservations on Spain's request to enter the European Community - something which had been held out as a promise by Europe on the return of democracy to Spain. When President Giscard d'Estaing announced before French farmers in 1980 that France was planning to block Spain's entry to the EC, Spanish frustration exploded into open hostility.

Today the two main obstacles to smooth relations - terrorism and the EC - have largely been resolved.

Yet the change in tone was slow in coming even after the arrival of a Socialist government in France in 1981. The Socialists had always defended France as a land of asylum and were reluctant to hand over Basques considered as political refugees.

The first break came at a summit in February 1984 when Mitterrand, firmly convinced of the need of integrating Spain and Portugal into the ``European project,'' openly gave his backing to Spain's EC entry.

A few months later France expelled the first Basque terrorist suspects to Spain.

In a solemn settling of historical differences, King Juan Carlos signed a friendship and cooperation treaty in Paris in July 1985 that paved the way for this week's first summit meeting.

The coming to power in France a year ago of the right-wing coalition headed by Mr. Chirac cast some uncertainty on French-Spanish relations.

However, Chirac dropped his earlier threat to renegotiate the terms of Spain's EC membership. What's more, antiterrorism collaboration increased spectacularly over the last summer. The number of Basque terror suspects expelled to Spain or deported to other countries has risen in a few months to 45.

Perplexed observers point out that Spain's Socialist rulers seem to get on better with the French conservatives than with their Socialist counterparts.

Two final differences in EC matters were settled last October when Spain dropped its veto to EC Mediterranean policy concerning exports by third countries in direct competition with Spanish products.

The decision safeguarded France's privileged relations with North Africa. In exchange, Spain's powerful fishing flotilla was granted further access to the rich waters off the French coast.

``France has stopped playing big brother,'' says a French Embassy spokesman here.

Meanwhile, the Spanish, with a wink at the Mitterrand-Chirac tandem, have toasted the summit with a ``vive la cohabitation ... franco-espanol.''

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