The British and French have a remarkable ability to irritate each other. That skill was demonstrated again recently when Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French prime minister, was asked on television why he was not prepared to take a leaf out of the British book and adopt the UK coalition government’s policies on cutting public sector pay and jobs. His response was firm, not to say aggressive. The Cameron government’s policies have, he asserted, created “mass poverty” and social inequality on a huge scale, of a kind which the French would never find acceptable. And he reminded the viewers that unlike France the UK had still not yet recovered output lost in the great recession.
This latest outburst is in a long line of criticisms elaborated by President François Hollande, and indeed Nicolas Sarkozy before him, both of whom believe that “Anglo-Saxon” governments, economists and credit rating agencies exaggerate French economic weakness. David Cameron’s promise to roll out the red carpet to welcome French entrepreneurs escaping punitive tax rates added fuel to the flames. And it is true that certain elements of the British press are assiduous in peddling a negative view of France as a latter-day Soviet Union, clinging to an outdated economic model.
If we look below the rhetoric, which side has the better of the argument?