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'Political ploy' behind France's war of words on Britain

Relations between Paris and London hit a new low Friday after the French government joined the Bank of France in attacking Britain over the state of its economy. FRANCE 24 take a closer looks at the reasons behind the latest cross channel dispute.


When French Finance Minister Francois Baroin stated he would rather be French than British from an economic point of view, his words were obviously going to cause a stir on the other side the channel.

And when Baroin’s view was then echoed by none other than the French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, minor shockwaves were registered in government offices and banks in London.
On a trip to Brazil Fillon lambasted the credit rating agencies, who are threatening to downgrade France’s triple-A rating.
He said Britain’s economic situation was ‘worrying’ and argued that US credit rating agency Standard & Poors should be demoting Britain’s rating before France’s.  
Fillon and Baroin were simply wading into a row kicked off on Thursday by France’s central bank chief Christian Noyer. He too advised the rating agencies to look first at Britain because it had ‘more deficits, as much debt, more inflation and less growth than us.’
Even the UK’s Europhile Deputy PM Nick Clegg had had enough of the Brit baiting on Friday. He promptly hit back, slamming the comments as ‘simply unacceptable’. His response came after he received a groveling phone call from Prime Minister Fillon.
The war of words was naturally jumped on by the British press, with the right-wing Daily Mail newspaper labeling the French stance, ‘The gall of Gaul’.
The ripples from the row spread far and wide with World Bank President Robert Zoellick saying he was “deeply troubled” by the exchanges on Friday.
This week’s rupture in Anglo French relations comes just a week after British Prime Minister David Cameron angered Nicolas Sarkozy by refusing to sign an EU treaty on the eurozone debt crisis.
Calculated plan of attack
But economists and political scientists on both sides of the channel agreed that France’s comments were motivated by more than just the fallout from the EU summit.
“It is clearly a political ploy,” Tomasz Michalski, a professor in Economics at HEC business school in Paris, told FRANCE 24. “It has to be looked at within the context of internal politics in France.
“The current leadership is concerned about next year’s elections. If only France is downgraded, then the socialist party will certainly make the most of it,” he added.  
“If France is going to lose its triple-A- credit rating then they don’t want to be the only country,” he said.
Dr Philippe Marliere, a political scientist from University College London agreed.
“It’s definitely a smoke screen,” Dr Marliere told FRANCE 24. “If it’s not a strategy then it is certainly a diversion because the public are expecting France to be downgraded.”
Both countries in crisis
Unfortunately for the French ministers, their attempts to highlight the plight of the British economy rather than their own appeared poorly timed.
On Friday France's official INSEE statistics agency warned that the country will enter a "mild recession", and that next years government growth target of 1 per cent will be hard to achieve.
But Britain’s economy is also struggling with its public services creaking after stringent cuts to their budgets.
In the third quarter of this year France’s economy grew 0.4 percent, whereas Britain’s grew 0.5 per cent.
Economics professor Iain Begg from the London School of Economics said neither country was in a position to boast.
“You could make a case for either country having the worst economic situation,” Beggtold FRANCE 24. “French debt is slightly higher than the UK and the French banking system is more vulnerable, but in Britain there is high unemployment and high inflation.”
Professor Michalski from HEC says in reality neither country are worthy of their Triple 'A' status, but he explained Britain had an advantage when it comes to dealing with the problem of spiraling public debt.
“Both countries are in a bad situation. They are not that much different. The difference is the Bank of England can print more money which makes it easier to pay off debt whereas the European Central Bank does not want to do that.”  
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