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'French-bashing' Johnson on charm offensive in Paris

In an interview in Paris, London Mayor Boris Johnson - known for "French bashing" - praised France and Margaret Thatcher, criticised Europe, and referenced a cartoon about an inventor and his dog to describe his relationship with PM David Cameron.


Though he’s known on this side of the channel for his repeated “French bashing”, London Mayor Boris Johnson was on surprisingly good behaviour during an eagerly awaited interview in Paris on Friday morning.

In France to promote the French translation of his book on the British capital (“Johnson’s Life of London”), the gaffe-prone former Conservative MP and journalist took to radio station France Inter to address his feelings about France, Europe, and the global economy.

Though Johnson remained coy as to any intentions of running for UK prime minister – “that’s so far off,” he said – his willingness to delve into international affairs suggested that his sights are set beyond London borders.

And as if it weren’t clear enough that this was a full-on charm offensive, Johnson fielded questions in fluent, though accented, French.

A love of French infrastructure

“I’m a great admirer of France,” said the man who recently compared French President François Hollande’s fiscal policies to “tyranny”. “I’m especially full of admiration for French infrastructure. Whenever I arrive at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I’m always impressed.”

Noting that one of his grandmothers was French, Johnson also joked that with the number of French expats in London estimated at roughly 250,000, he is “the mayor of the 6th biggest French city”.

However, the feeling may not be mutual, with a recent survey finding that 61% of French people are in favour of Britain's departure from the EU.

Johnson nevertheless seemed intent to emphasise the ties between England and France, specifying that “in London today, the streets are cleaned by French companies, water is treated by a French company, electricity is generated by a French company, and the big red buses belong to a French company”.

“Would the mayor of Paris ever accept that an English company owned Parisian buses?” Johnson challenged journalist Patrick Cohen in one of the only mildly testy exchanges in a mostly good-natured interview. “We’re the good Europeans!”

Europe needs to 'open' up

When pressed about his pointed mocking of the French government during a dispute last fall with steelmaker ArcelorMittal, Johnson articulated a broad defence for greater economic flexibility. “We are in a global economy, and it is absolutely necessary for Europe to be open to the rest of the world,” he said. “To say that we needed to sell a certain company to Europeans and not to Indians, that seems retrogressive. We need to be open. The countries that are up and coming in Asia, South America, that’s where we find growth now. Neither France nor Great Britain should close the door on that.”

Johnson diagnosed the economic problems sweeping the European continent as stemming from the euro itself. “The euro is too strong, and it’s too hard for the eurozone countries that aren’t strong enough economically,” he assessed. “Germany is the only country that benefits.”

As for Great Britain’s own economic woes, which include stubbornly high unemployment and debt issues, Johnson placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the rival centre-left Labour Party. “[Margaret] Thatcher made reforms that liberated the market, that made a lot of people more rich,” Johnson said. “But alas the Labour Party spoiled things.”

According to Johnson, “the proximity to Europe and the lack of confidence in Europe” have also hampered the British recovery.

But Johnson managed to work in a compliment for France even as he criticised European economic policies. “All of Europe must cut spending and invest in infrastructure, which is something you do very well in Paris.”

‘We’re like Wallace and Gromit’, on UK PM

The mayor offered his opinion that a Europe-wide foreign policy was not feasible, since “we don’t all have the same goals and interests”.

When his interview asked him whether he regretted Britain’s siding with the US, rather than France, on the Iraq War, Johnson admitted that joining the coalition led by former US President George W. Bush – whom Johnson once referred to as “a cross-eyed Texan warmonger” – was “an error, a miscalculation”.

In one of the lighter moments of the interview, Johnson was asked about his rivalry with fellow conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. “We’re like Wallace and Gromit,” Johnson quipped, referring to the main characters of popular British animated films about an absent-minded inventor and his exceptionally clever dog.

He did not specify who was who.

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