Britain-France ties: How cordial is the entente?

French President Francois Hollande (left) with UK PM David Cameron in Brussels, 25 Oct 13 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.

Gavin Hewitt, Europe editor Article written by Gavin Hewitt Gavin Hewitt Europe editor


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  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    As Britain recovers from depression and France slowly falls apart, look at it as Cameron meets Gordon Brown. You don't often get a scientific 'control' in politics but here we have one. Brown ended Boom and Cameron has ended Bust. Britain under Brown and the BBC versus Britain under the elected government and HYS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Lock up your daughters - the French are coming!
    Funny. Shakespeare wrote the exact opposite in Henry V

    By faith and honour,
    Our madams mock at us, and plainly say
    Our mettle is bred out and they will give
    Their bodies to the lust of English youth
    To new-store France with b*****d warriors.
    - Lewis the Dauphin.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    The Euopean project is a noble and mature aspiration that has become bloated and flabby with the usual excesses of a large and ageing organisation.
    Europe needs react more quickly in a fast changing world and while I agree we should stay in it, it is right to seek for a wholesale review to keep it fit for purpose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Ahhh...the Old Enemy.

    Our rivalry is so joyous and comforting.

    We mock them as 'frogs'.

    They mock us as 'les rosbif'.

    Much blood has flowed between us down the centuries, and for it all, France and England are just mirrors held up to each other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    If UK believes in what it's doing, why does it need to convert France?
    UK propositions ought to stand by themselves - logical & meritorious. This entire article bespeaks opposite; as you write: "The challenge for David Cameron is to frame his reforms in a way that might also appeal to the French voter & so perhaps weaken the resistance coming from the Elysee."
    Why is that necessary?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    @9 Random 16

    Locking up our daughters will not help.
    The French are after our shale gas and they are willing to risk polluting the water table to do it.

    Money talks louder than the electorate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I'm not entirely sure what we gain by increasing relations between the UK and the cheese eating surrender monkeys. Focus should be on the German leadership teams, they are our strongest allies in Europe (and have strongly expressed there disregard for the current French fiscal policies). Germany is the EU leader, France is just a junior member.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Coalition government was going to signal the end of the world, until it happened, and didn't. Leaving the EU is going to signal the end of the world as well now. Liberals always use the simpliest scare tactics to get what they want. Wake up and smell the coffee and turn the BBC left wing middle class London liberal mouthpiece off. Why do we have to pay for their daily brainwashing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    From memory there is a great scene in "Yes Prime Minister" in which Sir Humphrey Appleby explains to Jim Hacker that the only reason the UK went into Europe was to irritate the French.

    I keep wondering whether Yes Minister and Yes Prime Ministers were comedy shows or factual documentaries

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Lock up your daughters - the French are coming!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    "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."

    Employment law and workers' rights are especially important because this government has slowly been doing its best to erode these since coming to power.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    ' 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". '

    They are the victims of over 60 years of propaganda- in their media, in their schools and probably in their universities

    "EU"-lovers talk at you instead of with you & they don't listen. The arguments they present R

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Someone must make this Government see sense as re our role in Europe.
    Its time to stop this lunacy about exiting and get to centre stage and start being a team player.
    Our Jobs and furture generations of young people careers depend on us remaining in the EU.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    There is always complaints from other countries about us wanting to "cherry pick" regulations... to be honest as one of the top 4 contributors to the EU budget we should be able to make certain decisions about what is best for us. Paying in more than most AND having detrimental legislation forced upon us by them just adds insult to injury

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    We can take what ever President Hollande says to our PM with a pinch of salt. If he's prepared to cheat so brazenly on his love partner then what chance does the British public have with the man.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Presumably, if an in/out referendum ever actually happens, it'll be like the Scottish independence vote, in that the politicians on both sides will do their best to avoid any meaningful debate.

    As with the Scottish situation, we'd be unlikely to see either side openly discuss the realities. Instead, they will prefer to snipe at each other and score points, aided all the while by the media.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Cue all the frothing Europhobes, crying into their copies of the Telegraph, because Britain isn't (quite) the 51st state of America....

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Comments by Helmut Schmidt reveal that he let Greece into the "EU" in order to please the French & that you could not always be taking sideways glances at the electorate 2C what they want

    The EU is a mess because of that sort of thinhing

    I don't want Cameron being too friendly with other politicians. He is there to serve the British people & not 2 impose the wishes of his "pals" on us


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