Chirac, the poor person's friend

Observations on the G8 summit

The United States may try to vilify France as the antithesis of humanitarian intervention, but if all goes to plan, President Jacques Chirac will emerge from next month's G8 summit in Evian with his humanitarian reputation as clear as mineral water.

While the US wants the 1-3 June agenda to concentrate on (yawn) liberalising trade and the battle against terrorism, Chirac as G8 chair has constructed a talks programme around debt cancellation for the world's poorest countries, the world-wide supply of drinkable water and partnership with developing African nations.

When he launched the G8 agenda in January, Chirac said the meeting - which brings together the heads of state from the world's richest countries, plus Russia - would "concentrate on one of the most fundamental needs of humanity: water". "It certainly does seem as if we and France are speaking the same language this time," said Costanza de Toma, advocacy manager at British Overseas NGOs for Development (Bond). Development campaigners in their thousands have written to Chirac to congratulate him, and to urge him to push forward his anti-poverty agenda.

George W Bush will want to avoid too much talk of Iraq at the summit, partly because he doesn't want Chirac or Russia's Vladimir Putin to have a piece of the reconstruction pie. But he will also want to avoid charges of hypocrisy. While the Bush administration executes a go-slow on the cancellation of debt to African nations, the US treasury secretary, John Snow, has called for relief of Iraq's $100bn debt because its citizens should not have to repay debts racked up by a dictator. Chirac's invitation to African nations - which also have debts run up by dictators - to attend G8 meetings is a master stroke.

Even if the US continues its reluctance to provide what it calls "Wall Street welfare" on debt, Chirac will emerge as the good guy who at least tried. If, on the other hand, the G8 draws up a clear debt-cancellation programme to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (to halve the number of people living on less than $1 a day by 2015), it will be our French friend who co-ordinates the final push.

France's big idea for the G8 is a ban on subsidies for crop exports to Africa. As a result of cheap grain and cotton from the US and Europe flooding the African markets, poor farmers there can't sell enough to feed their families. Chirac says France will stop its own subsidies if other G8 nations come on board. Although as Henry Northover, policy analyst on Africa at the British development group Cafod, says, subsidies for exports account for only a fraction of the subsidies (including the EU Common Agricultural Policy so beloved of the French) which lead to food dumping in Africa.

The UK will push Gordon Brown's International Finance Facility , which will raise money for development by selling bonds to rich countries. The aim is to double the world's $50bn-a-year aid spending. Developing nations would be able to take cash from the piggy bank as long as they can show plans to use it to build schools and hospitals, put in place anti-corruption policies and open up markets to trade. So far, France is the only other G8 nation to have thrown its weight behind Brown's baby.

But like French plonk, talk is cheap. Campaigners point out that promises at previous G8s have come to little. At Cologne in 1999, leaders promised to write off $100bn of the 42 poorest countries' debts. Five years on, according to the Jubilee Debt Campaign, less than 20 per cent has been cancelled.

So the protesters will still be at Evian in force. If they can get there, that is. The exclusion zone is being extended to seven miles, and even journalists will be kept at a complex six miles away. "Exercise caution!" says one anti-G8 website. "The Gang of 8 is armed and ruthless."