As M. Sarkozy Visits London, How Cordial Are Franco-British Relations?

By John Lichfield Paris Correspondent | The Independent (London, England), March 25, 2008 | Go to article overview
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As M. Sarkozy Visits London, How Cordial Are Franco-British Relations?

John Lichfield Paris Correspondent, The Independent (London, England)

The big question

Why are we asking this now?

President Nicolas Sarkozy arrives in Britain for a two-day state visit tomorrow. He and Mme Carla Bruni-Sarkozy will take tea with the Queen, ride in state carriages through the streets of Windsor, and attend two official banquets. President Sarkozy and Gordon Brown, and a dozen French and British ministers, will hold the annual Franco-British summit on Thursday amid the unusual surroundings of the new Emirates football stadium in North London.

What's the stateof Franco-Britishrelations ?

There has been no serious spat for nearly three years, which must be something of a record. There has been no violent dispute over foreign policy since the argument over the Iraq invasion in 2003. There has been no dispute over immigration since the closure of the Sangatte refugee camp near Calais in 2002. And there has been no row over EU farm policy, or the British rebate, since late 2005.

Instead, the two governments are co-operating placidly against illegal immigration. They are jointly developing a new type of aircraft carrier and are ready, we are told, to announce a joint venture to create a new generation of nuclear power stations. How specific this agreement will be (co-operation has been going on for years) remains to be seen.

And relations between thetwo peoples?

Ah, that depends who you listen to. The British press still loves to bash or tease the French. The French media, especially French television, likes nothing better than to run a story about the eccentric Anglais (rarely the Scots or Welsh). The image persists in France that we are a nation evenly divided between punk rockers and men in bowler hats carrying rolled-up umbrellas.

In truth, something odd has been happening in French-British relations for quite a while. The two countries have been quietly merging. There are 300,000, mostly young, French people living in Britain (mostly in London). There are 250,000 British people living in France, mostly middle-aged, retired and living in rural areas. Some of Britain's greatest, recent folk heroes have been French, from Eric Cantona to Thierry Henry. One of Britain's greatest actresses, Kristen Scott-Thomas, who lives in Paris, said last week that she now regarded herself as a "Frenchwoman who spent her childhood in England".

Do Gordon and Nicolas get on?

Remarkably well. At the EU summit in Brussels earlier this month, they disappeared for a private, very friendly chat while the President of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Pottering, addressed (interminably) the other leaders. The two men first met when they were both finance ministers in 2004. They might appear to be Scots chalk and French fromage, Gordon dour and ponderous, Nicolas, all glitter and hyperactivity. But for some reason, the chemistry between them works.

A word of warning, however. Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair were also, briefly, the best of friends. Something usually turns up to sour relations between the Elysee and No.10. In a host of areas, from trade policy to the future of the EU farm policy and the British "rebate", the Sarkozy-Brown entente may be a spat waiting to happen.

What's on the summit agenda?

The world financial crisis. The French presidency of the EU, in the second half of this year. Nuclear co-operation. Immigration. China and the Olympics. Afghanistan. The problem with summits of this kind is that the press demands some important breakthrough or decision. The summit communique generally tries to oblige, often by wrapping up in shiny paper something that has been around for years.

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