The Socialist, the Tory, and the queen: Hollande visits UK
France's President Hollande is on his first state visit to Britain, where he is talking eurozone strategy with the prime minister and chatting – en français – with the queen.
Paris — The French Socialist today meets the British Tory at 10 Downing. But President François Hollande also visits the queen and will help her practice some French.
The latest chapter of the famed Franco-British “entente cordiale” got off to a slightly rocky start at the G-20 in Los Cabos, Mexico, when Mr. Cameron told world leaders that Britain would “roll out the red carpet” for French citizens seeking a UK tax shelter in the wake of the Socialist victory. The remark stung in France where, despite Hollande’s promotion of “growth” initiatives to ease the euro crisis, he is readying the kind of deep cuts in public spending that Cameron has implemented in Britain.
Some 400,000 French live in London, making it the seventh-largest French city, as British foreign secretary William Hague recently noted. The French newspaper Liberation tweaked Cameron today for his earlier comments in a headline: “Cameron unfolds the red carpet for Hollande in official visit.”
Cameron and Hollande see eye to eye on the need for greater European fiscal integration in a debt crisis where Greece, Italy, and Spain are on the ropes. The two will stress engagement in areas of energy, defense, and foreign policy, including approaches to Syria and Iran.
“Despite the comments at the G-20, Cameron wants relations with France to work,” says Philip Whyte of the Center for European Reform in London.
What about 'less Europe'?
But the ardently pro-Europe Hollande arrives at a time when Cameron talks "less Europe" for his country, and has been bullied by his Euroskeptic Tory back-benchers. The prime minister recently said, in something of a quiet shocker, that he would support a public British referendum on whether the UK should be part of Europe.
“Britain’s continued membership in the EU is unclear … momentum for a referendum in three to four year is becoming nearly unstoppable,” notes Mr. Whyte. “Euroskeptic MPs now want a referendum whatever happens with the euro crisis.”
While Hollande advocates a “financial transaction tax” for banks in Europe as a way to address Europe’s screaming debt crisis; for Cameron the idea is a non-starter that would put “The City,” or London, at risk as a financial hub.
France is also preparing to raise taxes on foreign-owned second homes, of which there are an estimated 200,000 British ones. The tax would affect both rental income (from 20 to 35 percent) and capital gains (19 to 34 percent) and is being labeled a “social charge.”
Yet the relatively young leaders understand the need for a stable Europe, many analysts say, above and beyond their policy differences. While Hollande received Europe's most powerful woman on Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in what appears to be a warming relationship, today he meets one of the world's most famous: Queen Elizabeth II.
At a press event after a working lunch, the vibes were better than the specifics. “We may have different views on Europe but we see eye-to-eye on growth,” Hollande said. "The relationship between France and Great Britain is fundamental not just for Europe but for the world."
Cameron described “deep links and ties” between the two: “We export more to France than China, India, and Turkey combined.”
They said more cooperation is coming in civilian nuclear, space, and defense sectors, particularly drone technology. They called for a transition in Syria from Bashir al-Assad, and said they were monitoring Al Qaeda in northern Africa’s Sahel region.
When reporters repeatedly asked about Cameron’s “red carpet” comment, Hollande smiled and made light of it.
And then, there's the queen
“Entente cordiale” atmospherics include Hollande’s visit to Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle for tea in the early evening. The queen is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee, and earlier in the day will view the Olympic torch carried through Windsor grounds.
The queen has asked to speak French. Hollande’s partner, Valerie Trierweiler, will not make the trip to Windsor.