Will new president change Anglo-French relations?

On February 29, the soon-to-be French president Francois Hollande visited London – but instead of meeting the prime minister, he dined on roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with the Labour leader Ed Miliband.

David Cameron's refusal to meet Mr Hollande was brushed off in Downing Street where a spokesman explained that it would have been 'unusual for the prime minister to meet the opposition candidate once an election campaign is under way'.

But the incident put beyond any doubt where Mr Cameron's loyalties lay, and set the scene for what is going to be a difficult, if not intriguing, period in Britain's European foreign policy.

Since 'le snub', as the incident came to be known, Mr Hollande has cut short the political career of the prime minister's ally Nicolas Sarkozy; winning the presidential election in France and espousing economic policy that in tone is at odds with that favoured by Mr Cameron.

The new French leader has signalled his support for an EU-wide 'Robin Hood' tax on financial deals and for European nations to have other common taxes; both concepts fiercely opposed in Britain.


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The president said in an interview this month: 'The British have been particularly shy about the issues of financial regulation and attentive only to the interests of the City; hence their reluctance to see the introduction of a tax on financial transactions and tax harmonisation in Europe.'

Meanwhile, Mr Hollande has continued to show support for Mr Cameron's rival, Mr Miliband, planning a further meeting with him before the summer after having agreed on the need to make the anti-austerity argument across Europe.

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For their part ,coalition ministers suspect Mr Hollande has overplayed his hand in the election and may be about to disappoint the French public due to his lack of any real capability to reverse austerity.

So this week Mr Cameron and Mr Hollande will finally meet for the first time, not in London or Paris, but at the US presidential country retreat Camp David, where a G8 summit will begin on Friday.

It is fair to say the atmosphere will be guarded, but the question is whether the president is going to bring with him a new dynamic in Anglo-French relations that will last past the jittery initial period that marks the coming of a new international leader.

A source at the Foreign Office close to secretary of state William Hague said: 'This week it will be interesting in terms of seeing what's said about Mr Hollande's election promises to spend his way out of his country's deficit.

'We obviously don't agree with that approach.

'More to the point, the Germans don't agree with that and that will be consequential for determining what happens to the Franco-German axis.

'British relations with Germany have been getting closer for the last two years now, and [German chancellor] Angela Merkel and the prime minister do have a personal rapport.'

With some antipathy already existing between Mr Cameron and Mr Hollande, the French president also appears to be antagonising the Germans.

In particular, Mr Hollande has demanded the German-backed fiscal treaty to save the euro be renegotiated, arguing that the cuts it burdens national governments with are too heavy.

Yet Mrs Merkel has made clear that renegotiation is not possible. Her parliamentary party leader Volker Kauder neatly summing up the point, saying: 'Germany is not here to finance French election promises.'

So some voices in Westminster are clearly saying that the French election has opened up a new opportunity for Mr Cameron to forge a powerful Anglo-German relationship that could hold economic sway in Europe.

On one side, their thinking goes, would be Mr Hollande, the Greeks and other southern European nations calling for an end to austerity, while on the other you would have Germany, Britain and the northern states; countries holding the EU's financial firepower.

But while there is an admission in Whitehall that it would be better to have as strong relations with Germany as possible, talk of a new Anglo-German axis is overplayed.

The government does not appear to see such a divisive strategy as advantageous, particularly with the horrendous economic consequences for the UK if the euro were to collapse because of the failure of European governments to work in unity.

The Foreign Office source said: 'The reality of politics is always that when you get into office you have to deal with your neighbours and the major powers.

'Obviously it's easy to do if you have a personal rapport or if the political parties are aligned, but either way the relations usually grind on together with leaders trying to emphasis the positives and downplay the difficulties.

'It is still the case that Britain recognises that the central axis of the EU is the Franco-German one and it is not in our interest to see it broken up.'

The truth is that there will be a string of issues discussed at the G8, such as how to deal with Iran and Syria, perhaps, and the wider global economy, which the EU governments will purposefully seek to find common ground on this week.

The leaders will continue in that vein over the weekend as the G8 summit rolls into a NATO summit to be held in Chicago.

From that point of view, the two events present a good opportunity for the European powers to cement relations that can be built upon when they have to hammer out agreement on EU economic issues on this side of the Atlantic.

joseph.watts@archant.co.uk

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