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Economy

France-Britain spat - a new lurch to nationalism in Europe?

media Happier times - British PM David Cameron meets President Nicolas Sarkozy … Reuters/John Schults

As France awaits humiliation at the hands of the credit-ratings agencies, a spat between British and French ministers has seen tongues sharpened and axes ground. Will everyone be friends again after the season of goodwill or is the row a symptom of a recession-inspired lurch to nationalism?

Europhobe British papers like the Daily Mail have been enraged by French Prime Minister François Fillon and Finance Minister François Baroin asking – on the same day, by some strange coincidence – why the credit rating agencies were threatening to downgrade France but not Britain.

“Our British friends [are] even more in debt than us and [have] a bigger deficit,” Fillon commented, during a visit to booming Brazil, while the boyish Baroin judged it preferable to be French than British at the moment living standards-wise.

How they compare - the UK and French economies in figures
RFI/Anthony Terrade

French Central Bank governor Christian Noyer had already made much the same point even more bluntly, comparing the UK’s debt deficit, debt and inflation rate unfavourably with that of France.

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg wasn’t impressed by the French statements.

Fillon’s comments were unacceptable, he told the Guardian on Saturday and he warned of an increase in “xenophobia, chauvinism and polarisation”, citing British Europhobe and Scottish nationalist parties as awful examples not to be followed.

"There is nothing more popular in French politics – it has always been the case and it will always be so – than giving 'perfidious Albion' a good kicking from time to time,” said Clegg, who is clearly better acquainted with European history than contemporary French politics.

Of course, Clegg is not without his own personal/political motives. His credibility is declining by the day, thanks to his role as a junior partner in a coalition government whose policy is dictated by the majority Conservative Party.

And Prime Minister David Cameron showed no consideration for the Europhile feelings of Clegg’s Liberal-Democrats when he blocked a Europe-wide agreement to try to save the euro for the sake of the City of London.

The statistics undermine Clegg’s case somewhat (see chart) but not Britain’s standing with the ratings agencies.

They are apparently impressed by the Bank of England’s decision to keep base lending rate at 0.5 per cent, while France’s, controlled by the European Central Bank, rose in the middle of the year. And they seem to have confidence in the UK government’s austerity programme, introduced at the beginning of the year and accused by many economists of stifling growth – an example the eurozone is now set to follow with the proposed treaty’s insistence on balanced budgets for all member countries in all circumstances.

Dossier: Eurozone in crisis

Employing bluff-Englishman rhetoric in the Europhile cause, Clegg hoped that cordial relations would be restored after the warring parties have had a chance to “eat some mince pies or whatever the French equivalent is”.

If Cameron appears to have delegated smoothing Gallic feathers to his deputy, that is also for good political reasons. He was practically mobbed by ecstatic right-wing MPs at the 1922 Committee, a grouping of backbench MPs of his Conservative party, on his return from Brussels and he has been hailed by a hero by the more chauvinist British papers, the breakfast reading of choice of the hard-core of his voters.

"There are few more comic spectacles than Frenchmen throwing fits of Gallic pique against the victors of Waterloo," raved the Daily Mail, for once printing a flattering photo of the “Eurofanatic” Clegg.

Rupert Murdoch’s Times dubbed the row “a childish cross-Channel spat”, adding its own contribution to the “entente glaciale” in the form of a cartoon of Sarkozy as a cockerel, having his neck wrung and being stuffed by Cameron like a Christmas turkey.

Whatever Clegg may think, there has been no outpouring of Albionophobia in the French press. In fact "Germanophobia” has been the prejudice du jour according to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the UMP, which recently lashed the rival Socialists for accusing the president of bowing to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “diktat”.

Sarkozy is no doubt dismayed at the prospect of a downgrade. Not so long ago he predicted such a move would be a body blow to his hopes of being reelected. But his ministers are now apparently expecting at least one agency’s axe to fall within a matter of days. The brief burst of UK-bashing was principally designed to soften the blow on public opinion, according to a diplomat quoted in Le Monde, rather than rattle sabres in preparation of a rerun of Waterloo. 

But what’s to stop both sides starting all over again, not to mention the Germans laying into the Greeks, the Greeks into the Germans and everybody into the Italians?

And will the war go beyond words, leading to the euro collapsing, the European Union breaking up – not a prospect that frightens many of Cameron’s backbenchers – and national economies taking shelter behind protectionist walls, deepening the economic crisis for all?

That is clearly what IMF chief Christine Lagarde fears.

Urging everyone to pitch in to save the eurozone, she told a forum on women in politics this week, "If that doesn't happen, the risk is that of retraction, rising protectionism, isolation. This is exactly what happened in the 30s and what followed was not something that we all are looking forward to."

Of course, Lagarde is French. But that doesn't automatically mean she's wrong.

OECD countries economic outlook 2012
RFI/Anthony Terrade

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