Francois Hollande comes to London today. He meets the Queen as a fellow head of state and the prime minister as fellow chief of government. On France's Europe 1 radio news programme this morning the presenter announced that the French president would be meeting "James" Cameron in Downing Street. Britain's prime minister may be flattered to be confused with the Hollywood film director but it shows little impact or interest the current British leader has across the Channel.
Hollande likes Britain. He was one of the few French socialists who did not look down his nose at Tony Blair's New Labour government. As leader of the French socialist party he ruefully acknowledged that Blair was better at one thing than the French left and that was winning elections.
Cameron by contrast seems to specialise in vaguely Francophobe gaffes. He snubbed Hollande when the French socialist came to London in February. It is hard to know what, if any advice, Cameron gets on European political affairs as he seems out of touch and out of his depth, in a manner not seen since John Major, in dealing with continental politics. Then after Hollande announced some tax hikes on the Bob Diamonds and Philip Greens of France, Cameron announced he would roll out the 'red carpet' for French citizens fleeing socialist France.
It is childish politics unworthy of a British prime minister but Cameron cannot help playing to the anti-EU gallery in his own party and the British press. It is all the more foolish as London, France's sixth biggest city in terms of French residents, has just sent a socialist deputy to the National Assembly. Axelle Lemaire beat off her conservative challenger to win election for one of the new constituencies created for French citizens living outside of France. Hollande called her up at the weekend to ask for advice on his London visit but who on earth is advising Cameron as he goes out of the way to look small and cheap in the eyes of Paris?
Hollande simply shrugs his shoulders. He is an experienced politician who has seen all the twists and turns in UK-French relations. He recalls the high points like the cooperation between Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand in shaping the Single European Act, the biggest transfer of sovereignty to shared EU institutions like the Council of Ministers, the Commission and the European Parliament. Or the low points when President Chirac scuppered Tony Blair's hopes of getting UN blessing for the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
But France and Britain have permanent interests. Both are UN Security Council permanent members, see themselves as global diplomatic players, share some military procurement work, and despite different approaches to austerity and fiscal responses to the economic crisis both want and need growth in Europe. Hollande, a natural conciliator will not seek a row and find nice words for Britain and roll out the tapis rouge for the hundreds of thousands of Brits who live and work in France and the millions who holiday there. The visit coincides however with William Hague launching today a Tory anti-EU report demanding the dismantling of current Treaty obligations.
Cameron has hinted at a veto of efforts to shape a eurozone response to the current crisis unless he gets a unilateral Tory British re-write of existing Treaties. Last week he gave the green light to a referendum on Britain's future with Europe. Hollande will not seek today to make polemical points on this growing Tory language about a British future separate from Europe. But in Paris and Berlin and Brussels the belief is sinking roots that Britain may on the way out.
Will Cameron make clear the opposite is the case, or will he agree with William Hague's dictum that between the Tory Party and Europe, the present government will always opt for the former?
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