31 Jan 2014

Britain and France: with friends like these…

As the British and French leaders hold a summit at an RAF base, Channel 4 News looks at the recent history of bad blood between the two countries.

David Cameron and Francois Hollande are not natural soulmates: one is a British Conservative who is pushing for EU reforms that can be put to the voters in an in-out referendum after the next election; the other is a French socialist who resents Britain’s “à la carte” approach to European issues.

Their discussions, about the EU, defence and energy, come at a time when relations between Britain and France appear to have been degenerating into a series of petulant spats.

These spats do not reflect well on either country: they are both mature democracies, successful economies (despite their recent problems) and allies. The advantages to be had from criticising one another with alarming regularity are not clear.

Conservative chairman Grant Shapps was at it recently, telling the Daily Telegraph that President Hollande’s administration served as a stark reminder of what could happen in Britain if Ed Miliband became prime minister.

He pointed to France’s economic difficulties – low growth and high unemployment – as if Britain has well and truly left its troubles behind, and said the country had “run into the sand”.

‘Failed socialist experiment’

A week earlier, it was the French firing their canon. An article by journalist Allister Heath in City AM, describing France as a “failed socialist experiment“, resulted in an intemperate, undiplomatic diatribe from the embassy in London.

The NHS was “ailing”, it said, and unlike in France, the infrastructure was not up to much either. Why the French embassy felt the need to respond in this way to one journalist’s musings is unfathomable, but it implied a prickly lack of confidence that reflects badly on a sophisticated European country.

At least Laurent Fabius’s red carpet jibe in January 2013 had some wit about it. The French foreign minister told British businesses his country would “roll out the red carpet for you” if Britain left the EU.

He was hitting back at David Cameron’s comment the previous year that Britain would “roll out the red carpet” for French firms seeking to flee President Hollande’s tax increases, which made France “uncompetitive”.

For David Cameron to criticise Labour’s fiscal policy is one thing – he has every right to as Conservative leader – but to become involved in another country’s tax affairs must have had the urbane folk at the French embassy in Paris choking on their croissants.

At least there is agreement between the two countries on defence. In 2010, Mr Cameron and President Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy signed a defence co-operation treaty, pledging to work more closely together.

They did just this in Libya the following year, with Muammar Gaddafi ousted in the process. There was also agreement over Syria, until the House of Commons vetoed British involvement in military action in August 2013.

‘You have been very rude’

There have obviously been disagreements between London and Paris in previous decades. Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac famously clashed over farm subsidies in front of other European leaders at an EU summit in 2002, the then French president telling Britain’s leader: “You have been very rude and I have never been spoken to like this before.”

A little over-sensitive, coming from the man who once told Margaret Thatcher she was taking “balls” during another argument about the common agricultural policy.

The regularity of these rows has increased, but twas ever thus.

Even Britons who sympathised with the French revolution threw their hands up in horror when Louise XVI was led to the guillotine in 1793. From a British perspective, it was ungentlemanly behaviour.

No doubt at the time Robespierre pointed out that this criticism was a bit rich coming from a country that had decapitated its king the previous century.