Prague and Paris seek to mend strained relations

Bernard Kouchner, Karel Schwarzenberg (right), photo: CTK

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg appears to have mended some fences with France on a just completed official visit. After veiled criticism from Mr. Schwarzenberg of French expulsions of Roma, this was set to be an awkward meeting but it seems to have ended with a desire to put future relations between Prague and Paris on a better footing.

Bernard Kouchner,  Karel Schwarzenberg  (right),  photo: CTK
Just over a week before his official visit to Paris, his first as a member of the current coalition government, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg gave an interview in which he said that French expulsions of Roma from Romania and Bulgaria raised suspicions that they could be considered as racist. He also questioned why those countries and the Czech Republic were not invited to an immigration summit being staged in the French capital.

However veiled the criticism, it touched a raw nerve as the French government came under fire from within the country and outside for its controversial actions. So it was no surprise that the Czech Foreign Minister was repeatedly quizzed about those comments when he arrived in Paris on Monday to meet with his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign relations expert.

On Monday, Mr. Schwarzenberg repeated, explained and defended some of his earlier comments, adding that the Czech Republic too had been on the receiving end of steps taken by Canada after members of its Roma population sought asylum across the North Atlantic.

Roma camp in Fleury Merogis,  France,  photo: CTK
“I thought that as the most discussed problem in the last weeks was the returning of the Roma population which originated from Bulgaria and Romania, it would be useful to invite the countries where the origin of the problem is. And, let’s be honest about this, we have the same problem with Canada.”

But Mr. Schwarzenberg also admitted he had personal reasons why the Roma issue is a sensitive one. As a child growing up in Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia, one of camps aimed at dealing with the so-called Roma problem was set up just five miles from the Schwarzenberg family home at Lety. Memories of that camp, where around 360 died and hundreds more were sent to their deaths in the extermination camp at Auschwitz remained with him.

“The prisoners were working there, guarded by the gendarmerie with a gun and bayonet. I had a very strange experience at this very place as a child. I am, I admit, in this respect concerning Roma discrimination maybe more touchy than anybody else.”

Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: CTK
On the French side, there was a desire to go beyond the latest in a series of clashes with the Czechs – most of which can be traced back to the presidential Elysee palace. Other issues are on the table: the French desire to build nuclear reactors in the Czech Republic, international freedom for the Internet, the Czech desire to host the European satellite navigation system, Galileo, and economic questions linked to France’s chairmanship of the G8 and G20. With this in mind, both countries seem keen to leave behind their bickering.