Good fences make good neighbours, as the old saying goes. But even the English Channel is not wide enough to keep the French and British from sniping at each other.
In the week since Prime Minister David Cameron refused to sign on to the French-German project for a euro zone makeover, the centuries-old love-hate relationship is swinging back to, well, a slugfest.
“In terms of the economic situation, one prefers to be French rather than British at the moment,” said French Finance Minister François Baroin today on Europe 1 radio.
Just the day before, the head of France’s central bank, Christian Noyer, said Britain’s credit rating ought to be downgraded because its inflation and debt are worse than those of France. It was a gem of relative reasoning.
Mr. Noyer, who also serves on the European Central Bank that runs euro zone monetary policy, was quickly attacked in the British media.
“The gall of Gaul!” screamed a headline on the online site of the tabloid Daily Mail.
The escalation of insults recalls earlier explosive spats between “the frogs” and “les rosbifs” over who is more civilized, although with one big difference. This time the insults are coming from high-ranking government officials.
Even President Nicolas Sarkozy has joined the fray, commenting that Mr. Cameron had acted like a spoiled child at the European Union summit in Brussels last week.
Then, France and Germany, which both use the euro, pushed hard for a new EU treaty on debt ceilings and fiscal regulation. The goal was to reassure the markets with the combined weight of an EU-wide commitment.
They managed to get an agreement – but without Britain – that was remarkable because it would tie the remaining 26 EU countries to a fiscal austerity treaty, even though only 17 of them use the common currency. Prime Minister Cameron said he could not agree to any treaty that envisioned EU-wide regulation of financial-sector taxation.
The question of whose debt is bigger and who is in trouble also recalls the old Russian fable of the farmer who is jealous of his neighbour for having two cows while he has just one. Instead of asking a helpful sorcerer for a second cow, the farmer wants one of his neighbour’s cows killed.
It all seems more than a bit unseemly to fight over who is in worse shape economically. The French statistical agency, INSEE, just reported that France has slipped into recession again after clawing its way out in early 2010. It should pull out, barely, in the first quarter of 2012. But the overall climate is one of stagnation.
Except, of course, in the cross-Channel climate.