When François Hollande arrives at Downing Street and Windsor Castle for his first official UK visit on Tuesday, he’ll be hoping he won’t have to pose for the cameras on a red carpet.
The first time France’s new Socialist president met David Cameron alone, at the British embassy in Washington before the G20 in May, the prime minister shortly afterwards made a joke that shocked Paris, where it was swiftly dismissed as misplaced “British humour”.
Cameron said he would “roll out the red carpet” and “welcome more French businesses to Britain” if Hollande raised taxes on the rich. He said that by paying British taxes, French firms could help “pay for our health service and schools and everything else”. In return, the MP Claude Bartolone, now leader of the parliament, said French people who moved to London for lower tax rates always returned to France for medical care and schools because public services “no longer exist” in Britain.
This wasn’t a great start to the latest Paris-London relationship. But when it comes to taxes, particularly the financial transaction tax favoured by France but dreaded by Britain, Cameron loves a good French punchline. In November he told the Commons of his opposition to the tax, adding that he was “sometimes tempted to ask the French whether they would like a cheese tax”. There were guffaws from the Tory benches.
Whether the jokes will keep rolling at Hollande’s first Downing Street working lunch remains to be seen. It’s unclear whether the atmosphere will be unusually laid-back when France’s President Normal – who still lives in a rented flat and turns his own door-handles at the Élysée instead of waiting for a butler – meets Chillaxing Dave, fresh from winding down with DVD box-sets and karaoke machines.
Certainly, the media on both sides of the Channel have always loved a good saga of strained Franco-British relations and put-downs, from Mitterrand’s quip that Thatcher had the “eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe” to Jacques Chirac’s question about her: “What more does the bag want, my balls on a platter?”
Officially both sides always deny any sense of a rift. Cameron himself played down the tensions in his love-hate relationship with the rightwing Nicolas Sarkozy, talking of “the odd bump or bounce” and choosing not to dwell on Sarkozy’s rant at him in Brussels (“You’ve lost a good opportunity to shut up,” said the Frenchman).
There have been close cross-Channel relationships: Sarkozy got on well with both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He also personally stepped in to help Cameron after his father died while on holiday in France in 2010. In return, Cameron backed Sarkozy’s re-election bid and didn’t meet Hollande when he came to London during his presidential campaign, despite the Socialist announcing in English as he stepped off the Eurostar, “I’m not dangerous”.
The two hold different political stances. Hollande is to introduce a 75% tax on income beyond the €1m mark, while the Conservative prime minister has just cut the UK’s top rate. Hollande is an opponent of one-size-fits-all-austerity, while Britain is making sweeping cuts, even if Cameron recently pointed out that France was aiming to balance its books faster than the UK.
Both sides will inevitably stress the friendly, cordial nature of the Downing Street meeting, and Hollande’s style is conciliatory and non-confrontational. But there are some awkward dossiers on the table, not least the tricky issue of the British rebate and the looming battle of the EU budget next year. Cameron and Sarkozy are thought to have reached a tacit compromise that France would not call into question the British EU budget rebate if Downing Street did not press for radical reform of the ever contested Common Agricultural Policy which swallows up much of the EU budget. It’s not clear whether Hollande will observe this non-agression pact.
Hollande will then meet the Queen for a 30 minutes tete-a-tete alone, with no interpreters and the Queen speaking French. When Sarkozy came to Windsor Castle on state visit in 2008, it was with Carla Bruni just after their marriage, showcasing his new glamorous new relationship. Hollande, who is coming for a working political lunch, then a royal audience, will be without his partner, Valérie Trierweiler, who has had a low profile since her tweet in support of an opponent of Hollande’s former partner Ségolène Royal sparked a new Élysée soap opera likened to Dallas.
We will have to wait another time for the moment when Trierweiler meets her British counterpart, Samantha Cameron. But Hollande, who is nicknamed Rain Man because torrential downpours have drenched every major public event since his inauguration, can be sure of one familiar comfort: in London it will be tipping it down.