Prague and Paris seek to mend strained relations|
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.
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
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.
“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
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.”
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.