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Paris fails the European test

In the wake of London’s decision to block tighter fiscal integration in the European Union, French officials have launched a series of attacks on the British economy. Christian Noyer, the chairman of the French central bank, insisted that the UK had “more deficits, as much debt, more inflation, less growth than us”. Finance minister Francois Baroin followed this up by commenting: “The economic situation in Britain today is very worrying”. What triggered these statements was not fraternal concern for the UK’s economic health but rather anger at British opposition to the euro rescue deal and the threatened downgrade of France’s credit rating.

After centuries of armed conflict and global rivalry, relations between France and the UK are easily fractured. While many European nations have shown cross-generational gratitude to Britain, the United States and Russia for rescuing them from Nazi occupation during the Second World War, the liberation of France by allied forces has widely been regarded as an affront to French national pride. Over the past 60 years, the influence of the Anglo-Saxon economic model and culture, plus the global rise of the English language, have been criticised by a succession of French political and cultural leaders.

The current European economic woes therefore go right to the heart of such French preconceptions. While both Britain and France have both struggled to find a place in the post-colonial age and their all too obvious relegation to the second rank of nations, Paris alone has sought to find international relevance through the EU. Regarding the creation of a European state as its own pet project, the French government has been forced to accept Germany’s position as the region’s economic superpower, consoling itself with a leading role in European diplomacy and foreign policy. It is therefore understandable that French establishment figures are frustrated by British policy towards Brussels.

The relative positions of all European states in the recent talks on closer integration were entirely reasonable. France wants to settle the economic crisis and preserve its ambition of helping to lead a European superstate. Germany shares much of this outlook but, understandably, wants to make sure that fiscal discipline is enforced in those states that it has been forced to bail out. The struggling European economies had to agree the deal to guarantee this support, while most Eastern European states remain enamoured with membership of this First World club and are content to pursue integration. For its part, London does not want deeper integration and so refused to hand over more decision-making powers.

French anger, however, is also directed at the US credit rating agencies. They have already cut their ratings for major French banks, while Standard & Poor’s has warned that it may cut France’s current AAA sovereign rating. Such a downgrade would be a blow and it is true that the British economy shares many of the problems of its European partners, including rising unemployment and anaemic levels of growth. Yet by directing playground-level insults at the British government, French officials have demonstrated exactly why a European superstate is a non-starter. National interests still come first.