A protracted squabble over the top jobs at the European Central Bank would damage the young institution's authority and bring the European Union into disrepute. National governments must do everything to avoid an ugly showdown.
The French government has always maintained that under an informal agreement struck at the time of his appointment as ECB president in May 1998, Wim Duisenberg promised to make way after four years for Jean-Claude Trichet, governor of the Bank of France. Mr Duisenberg contests this version of events. He insists that he is unlikely to serve his full eight-year term but will stand down in his own time. Last month, he declared his intention to stay in office throughout 2002.
Whatever the backroom deal, there should be no question of pushing Mr Duisenberg out. Despite poor communication skills he has proved competent. But that is not the point. Bundling Mr Duisenberg out would undermine the bank's independence and make a mockery of the EU as a community of law.
It would also be in France's interests to wait. French magistrates are still probing Mr Trichet's involvement, when head of the Treasury, in the alleged falsification of the accounts of Credit Lyonnais. It would compromise the ECB, which is still establishing its credibility for monetary policy, if its president was ensnared in judicial proceedings. Mr Trichet must wait until the judges have given him the all-clear.
For the same reason, he should not join the executive board when Christian Noyer, a Frenchman, retires as vice-president in May. This has been touted as an interim solution for the problem of French representation. It is, however, not clear whether the EU treaties would allow him to move from being board member to president.
As Hans Eichel, the German finance minister, said yesterday, it would be normal for France to be represented on the board. True, but that can only strengthen the chances of Mr Trichet moving directly from the Bank of France to the ECB presidency when Mr Duisenberg chooses to step down. Until then, France should go without a board member. A new vice-president should be found elsewhere.
As one of Europe's most able central bankers, Mr Trichet is a natural candidate for the ECB presidency. For Europe's sake, the Paris magistrates should decide swiftly whether or not to pursue their investigation into him. In the meantime, the French government should be patient. Forcing the ECB into a bloody fight for the presidential succession would be in no one's interests.