Britain-France ties: How cordial is the entente?

  • 30 January 2014
  • From the section Europe
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French President Francois Hollande (left) with UK PM David Cameron in Brussels, 25 Oct 13 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption President Hollande (left) is sceptical about the UK's push to renegotiate its EU ties

On Friday David Cameron will squire Francois Hollande around the Oxfordshire countryside, hoping that the bracing air of the Cotswolds will soothe away the tensions. This will be the first Anglo-French summit involving these two leaders.

There is always a good deal of theatre to British-French relations. The two countries are forever comparing one against the other. And so it remains. A senior British politician accused the French president of driving his economy "back into the dust".

And then there was the article boldly declaring that "the most brilliant minds of France are escaping to London". The fast-charging British economy is compared to a sclerotic France.

The French are irritated. The Finance Minister, Pierre Moscovici, said France "deserves the world's trust". Perhaps. In official government circles in Paris they remain deeply sceptical of the British economic recovery. They shake their heads. The UK never learns, their argument goes. Another bubble built on soaring house prices and the City. What about productivity, manufacturing, etc?

And as a parting shot the French believe they have by far the better infrastructure and health service and more companies in the Fortune 500 list.

All of that may be true, but the French government failed in its promise to bring down unemployment by the end of 2013. Only now does the government appear serious about lowering corporate taxes. And many French business leaders remain sceptical of the offer to find 30bn euros (£25bn; $41bn) in corporate tax breaks in exchange for hiring more workers by 2017. And then there are the newly-announced spending cuts - 50bn euros.

UK in/out question

But Mr Cameron and Mr Hollande will not be discussing the French leader's conversion to supply-side economics. There will be evidence of the burgeoning defence relationship, with an agreement to build together a new helicopter-launched missile to attack small ships and there will be discussions on energy and space agencies.

The heart of the conversation will be Europe. In capital after capital you hear similar words to those uttered by a senior French official - a British exit from the EU "would be a catastrophe for France as well as Britain". (The demographics suggest the UK could be Europe's largest economy by 2050 - and the whole European project would be weaker if its biggest economy was on the outside.) The French refer to a Brexit (British exit) as "the possible accident". They want to avoid it, but not at any price.

The British believe that a renegotiation of the European treaties is inevitable. The German government says that all the steps to further integrate the eurozone countries require the legal backing of a change to the treaties. The British see that as opening the door for them to renegotiate their relationship with the EU ahead of a referendum in 2017. It is clear that President Hollande will not be helpful in meeting that deadline. A treaty change would trigger a referendum in France and in the current malaise he would be fearful of the French voting "non".

But President Hollande's resistance goes deeper and the Elysee has been briefing on this for some time. They will not accept a Europe a la carte, where countries cherry-pick what they like. Yes, they will examine reforms that would benefit all, but they will not agree to opt-outs for the UK on employment law, workers' rights or free movement. They will not agree to a loosening of ties that undermines European solidarity.

Election challenge

The dilemma for David Cameron is this: there are plenty of potential allies - not least the Germans - for less regulation, expanding the single market and even curbing migration, but will the PM win enough concessions to convince the country and his own backbenchers that the whole exercise has been worthwhile?

It might be tempting to see the French president as vulnerable, unpopular and weakened by scandal. There is little evidence, however, that the French public cares about his scooter rides around Paris. They prefer not to judge him. But they do care about jobs.

In the months ahead the French have the opportunity to deliver a verdict on the government in both the municipal and European elections. Last week an opinion poll placed the avowedly Eurosceptic Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front (FN), in first place for the May European elections.

The challenge for David Cameron is to frame his reforms in a way that might also appeal to the French voter and so perhaps weaken the resistance coming from the Elysee.