The Tánaiste, a tractor and a frozen food summit
By Martina Fitzgerald, Political Correspondent
What do a Massey Ferguson tractor, the French President, Francois Hollande, and a frozen food summit have in common?
They all featured on the Tánaiste’s itinerary during his three-day visit to France.
Eamon Gilmore is in Paris for the St Patrick’s Day Festival and it seems all angles – political and economic – are being covered.
On Friday he set off to the residence of the French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. The two men discussed the situation in Ukraine with Mr Gilmore later telling reporters that Sunday’s referendum in Crimea is illegal.
He also revealed that he and the French Prime Minister had agreed to look at ways to promote the exchange of trainees and apprentices, particularly in the tourism and agri-food sectors.
But there was little doubt about the focal point of his visit – a meeting with the French President Francois Hollande at the Élysée Palace.
Mr Gilmore was visiting his socialist ally in Paris just a week after the Taoiseach held a press conference with his European People’s Party colleague – the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel in Dublin. It’s election time.
The French president was said to be in great form, shaking hands with everyone inside the palace, including our cameraman. Reporters yet again were left outside – a custom which hopefully won’t catch on.
Mr Hollande and Mr Gilmore have more in common that their socialist credentials. Mr Hollande is down in the opinion polls, he’s trying to tackle unemployment and boost growth and critically he is facing a mid-term electoral test with municipal elections at the end of the month. Then there are the European elections.
The two men put on a united front in their promotion of Martin Schulz’s candidacy for President of the European Commission. Mr Gilmore said Mr Schulz had visited Ireland during the economic crisis and had spoke forcibly about supporting us. “He was a friend to Ireland when we didn’t have many friends”, he said.
The Tánaiste has been emphasising the fact that voters can for the first time influence who will get the top job at the commission, as the names of the candidates will be known and also voters will know which parties and their respective political groupings are supporting them.
But realistically, it is hard to imagine that it will be the primary or even secondary issue exercising people as they scroll down the ballot paper in Dublin, Cork, or Paris.
Economic affairs were also high on the agenda and the issue of our legacy bank debt reared its head yet again. Eamon Gilmore said he took the opportunity to remind Mr Hollande of the June 2012 agreement by eurozone leaders to break the link between sovereign and bank debt and also to treat Ireland separately.
But he knows and also acknowledged that we will have to await progress on Banking Union before there’s any progress on it. And even then, even with the French being ‘consistently supportive’ of our case, we will need the support of all of our eurozone colleagues.
By lunchtime, Mr Gilmore was no longer talking about bank debt and Crimea, he was talking tractors. Massey Ferguson to be specific.
The Tánaiste visited the AGCO plant in Beauvais – the largest tractor production site in France. And it seems one that is taken very seriously. No photographs were allowed of the production line – although they made an exception when the Tánaiste mounted one of the tractors. It was just too good of a photo-opportunity to pass by.
But the reason for his trip to the plant is simple. This factory alone sources €380m worth of parts every year and there were representatives from 11 Irish companies there, hoping to secure a contract or build on an existing one.
So fittingly, the final photocall of the day – the Irish delegation and AGCO representatives all gathered round … a Massey Ferguson tractor.