• France edition
 
Interview
'Why jousting French and Brits make me smile'
Britain's ambassador to France Sir Peter Ricketts, has spent a lot of time in front of the French media durng his first year in Paris.

'Why jousting French and Brits make me smile'

Published: 26 Feb 2013 09:36 GMT+01:00
Updated: 27 Feb 2013 07:00 GMT+01:00

In February Sir Peter Ricketts celebrated one year in the hot seat as Britain’s ambassador to Paris. It has been an eventful first year for the former national security advisor to the British government. It has been marked by several tragedies including the cold-blooded murder of a British-Iraqi couple in the Alps, which saw the fluent French speaker in constant demand by both the British and French media.

The year has also been marked by the trading of several barbs between his Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande on anything from the EU budget treaty to taxes or the dominance of Britain’s Olympic cyclists over their French counterparts.

Sir Peter, who has also served as Britain’s permanent representative to NATO, took time out from managing the ever turbulent Franco-British entente cordiale to speak to The Local.

What has been the toughest moment of your year as ambassador?

I think it was the very first weekend, when we got a message through about a bad coach crash near Rheims involving British school children. We had to go down there and talk to the French authorities and the families, visit the hospitals and speak to the media, all within my first few days in Paris which was quite a traumatic experience. It also showed me the value of our consular work, because we really were able to help the families and those who had been injured. We made a real difference to people’s lives when they were facing the worst moment in theirs.

The murder of the couple in Annecy must also have been equally traumatic?

It was a terrible, terrible thing to happen, especially for those two poor girls. It was traumatic in emotional terms but we had to be professional and make sure we supported the family back in the UK, worked with the French authorities and did everything we could to help them find evidence. The most satisfying moment was when we were able to get the two girls back home. We made a big difference there and it’s this human aspect of the job that is the most satisfying. It was a traumatic and difficult time but an absolute core part of the job. We are here to support British people and we are making a contribution at a time of personal tragedy.

How involved do you get at moments like this?

I find the best people to deal with those who might be lying in hospital are our consular staff, who are trained in managing these situations and are wonderful in the way they deal with people. I am not sure people want to see the ambassador when they are in a hospital bed. So my role is to talk to French authorities and the media. People want to see the ambassador is there giving the fullest account we can and showing that we are fully on the case.

Following the unsolved murders, some newspaper articles in the UK portrayed France as being more dangerous than we thought. Should tourists be wary of visiting?

I think that was an exaggeration. We have a travel website which gives people common sense advice about keeping safe in France. I don’t think the threat is worse in France than in any other western country. In any country, including the UK, you can be caught up in violent crime. I certainly wouldn’t say people should be put off from coming to France because of what happened.

In general, elements of the British press love to engage in ‘French bashing’. Does that make you feel uncomfortable when you see the headlines?

No, it actually makes me smile. Because at the same time I also know people love to come to France. We get 19 million visits a year from British people. People love to make a home for themselves here and enjoy the French culture and lifestyle. But for centuries we have thoroughly enjoyed beating up on each other. There’s a fair bit of Brit bashing that goes on too so vive la différence. It doesn’t get in the way of an effective working relationship between the two countries. A lot of what you read in the press is overly excited about relations between British and French ministers.

Have relations between Britain and France changed since the arrival of the Socialist government and President François Hollande?

I don’t actually see much real difference. If I am honest, less than expected, given that there has been a complete change of government in France from the centre-right to the centre-left. In many areas the cooperation has gone on unchanged, for example in defense, which is a particular speciality of mine. I don’t think there’s been any change to our bilateral approach on defence. In foreign policy, William Hague and Laurent Fabius have been working very closely together. The huge nuclear energy investment France is going to do in Somerset with EDF and Areva is going ahead. On Europe there have been some differences but there were under Sarkozy as well. On those areas where we don’t agree we discuss them and we have ministers going back and forth between countries. Last week, for example, Theresa May and William Hague were in Paris. France may have changed its domestic policies but in terms of their international policies, I don’t think much has changed. That’s what's so striking.

When France raised taxes on holiday homes it caused a stir among Britons living here. Did you get involved?

On the question of the taxation of second homes, there was a change in the tax law here, which meant that foreigners with second homes were taxed at the same rate as French people. It was not particularly aimed at the British. We were concerned that it should not discriminate against the UK. If it had done we would have certainly taken it up but we looked carefully at the legislation and made sure it applied to everyone. There's nothing we can do if the French decide to set a tax rate that applies to everybody.

To what extent have the British supported the French operation in Mali?

They asked us specifically for military help and we gave them what they wanted. They decided to go in because they saw an immediate threat and they had forces deployed around Mali. They wanted us to provide air transport to help deploy their forces and a surveillance plane which we provided and are still providing. Within 24 hours of Mr Hollande asking David Cameron we had big C17 transporter planes loading up French equipment. They did not ask for combat troops. They don’t want more western troops on the ground. They want this to be an essentially African operation. We have backed them and we agree they were right to intervene. We pay for it. It comes off our defence budget which reflects the fact that we agree with them.

There’s a clear threat to the French in Africa as seen with the current hostage crisis. Have you been made aware of any clear threats to France on home soil?

There’s been nothing specific. The French have raised their own level of alert in France so you will see more soldiers and gendarmes around but if there was any reason to have any specific threat we would put it on our travel advice website. We are just advising people to take sensible precautions.

For more information on the work of the British Embassy in France and for travel advice click here to visit the official website.

Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Black Friday struggles to seduce French shoppers
Shoppers in France are more likely to stick to the usual sales for bargain hunts rather than go crazy for Black Friday. Photo: AFP

Black Friday struggles to seduce French shoppers

While some French retailers are hoping the US phenomenon "Black Friday" will seduce shoppers looking for bargains, the main question being asked in France was “What exactly is Black Friday?” READ  

Floods in south of France leave three dead
Rescuers search a flooded river for two missing people in the south of France. Photo: Bertrand Langlois/AFP

Floods in south of France leave three dead

Three people died and two other people were still missing on Friday after a heavy storm triggered flash flooding in southeastern France, the government said. Weather warnings were in place for some 14 departments in the region. READ  

US tycoon mocks France for being 'communist'
Maurice Taylor, chief executive of Titan International says France should become "Communist". Photo: AFP

US tycoon mocks France for being 'communist'

A US tyre tycoon on Friday ridiculed French laws and trade unions that he said had prevented him from investing in a stricken factory, saying France should become "communist". READ  

Paris: Protesters block 'racist' human zoo show
"No to human zoos" and "My body is not for sale", were just two of banners held up by protesters at Exhibit B show in Paris. Photo: Gilda Di Carli

Paris: Protesters block 'racist' human zoo show

A divisive art show featuring black actors in cages as a portrayal of 19th century "human zoos" had to be halted on Thursday after more than 120 angry protesters smashed their way into Paris theatre where it was being held. READ  

EU sets March deadline for France to fix budget
France has until March to implement further austerity measures, demanded by the EU.

EU sets March deadline for France to fix budget

The EU has given France a stay of execution after deciding to give it until March to fix its budget. Paris could still face fines however if it fails to implement further economic reforms. READ  

France -Israel
Lawyer attacked in Paris hit-and-run trial
Trial for the death of Lee Zeitouni halted in Paris after lawyer attacked. Photo: Jack Glez/AFP

Lawyer attacked in Paris hit-and-run trial

The Paris trial of two Frenchmen accused of killing a young Israeli woman in a hit-and-run road accident in Tel Aviv was halted Thursday after a defence lawyer was assaulted during a break in proceedings. READ  

Found in France: Ice age statuette of busty woman
About 12 centimetres (4.7 inches) high, it shows a woman with big breasts and buttocks. The head and arms are less detailed. Photo: AFP

Found in France: Ice age statuette of busty woman

A 23,000-year-old limestone statuette of a woman with big breasts and buttocks has been discovered in northern France in what archaeologists on Thursday described as an “exceptional” find. READ  

French MPs push for Palestine recognition
Photo: A woman holds a sign reading "Hollande Palestine will live, Palestine will win" during an anti-Israel demo. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

French MPs push for Palestine recognition

French lawmakers were to debate on Friday a motion urging the government to recognize Palestine as a state, amid growing European frustration at the moribund Middle East peace process. READ  

Ten things to do in France before Christmas
There's some great things to do in France before Christmas. Photo: AFP

Ten things to do in France before Christmas

With Christmas just round the corner, we've put together ten great festive and not-so-festive events happening around France in December to help you brave the cold and have a ball. READ  

More violent storms set for south of France
The south of France is set to be hit by more rough weather. Photo:AFP

More violent storms set for south of France

The south of France is set to be lashed by more extreme weather with some 12 departments placed on alert for floods on Thursday after violent storms and heavy rain were forecast. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Culture
What's on: Ten things to do in France before Christmas
Sponsored Article
Win a €250 voucher for your Christmas list
Education
Is Paris really the best place in the world to be a student?
Society
The things gynecologists say that drive French women mad
Sponsored Article
Live like a local - anywhere in the world
National
A pill to make flatulence smell like roses? A Frenchman has cracked it
Culture
Rare 400-year-old Shakespeare work found in northern France
National
Paris air pollution: 'It's like being in a room with eight smokers'
National
From infidelity to sexual needs: How French women have changed in 30 years
National
Billboards to be replaced by trees - the bold move by one French city
Gallery
French government gives 10 reasons to be proud: No. 1 - The Economy
Politics
France's 'first ladies': A look back at the other halves
National
Would background music make the RER in Paris feel safer?
Sponsored Article
Shop Christmas gifts at Debenhams international store
National
Trierweiler to break her silence... in the UK
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Winter is coming to the French Alps
Gallery
Don't confuse France with Paris: Here's ten reasons why
National
From the homeless to migrants: A portrait of modern France in ten stats
Culture
Are you brainy enough to be Miss France? Take the quiz
Gallery
France's most notorious celebrities. How many do you know?
Society
City of Love? Seven Paris myths debunked
Education
Why is France worst in the EU at English?
National
C'est pas possible! Paris is 'world's cheapest city for young people'
National
Looking to save space? France allows toilets in kitchens for first time
National
Find out how women in France are getting stung for a hidden tax
Culture
Which one is your favourite? The top 10 heartiest French winter dishes
Face Of The Week
Nabilla - 'France's Kim Kardashian' held for attempted murder
National
So who's scaring everyone by flying drones over France’s nuclear plants?
Education
Whoever thinks French was a dying language should read this
Politics
OPINION: 'One day France will be grateful to François Hollande'
Gallery
IN IMAGES: A history of France's most controversial architecture
National
How to make an 8-square-metre Paris apartment perfectly liveable
Gallery
VIDEO: France's raunchiest TV ads, including that infamous Perrier one
National
Five reasons why you should work a ski season in France and five not to
National
10 art exhibitions not to miss this autumn in Paris
Culture
What's on in France: 11 things to do this November
National
How French have you become? Take our quiz to find out
National
10 things to never say to a French person
National
Top 10: When French translations go wrong
National
Parisian bars that serve drinkers free meals
National
France falls to Germans in nude swim tourney
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Nowhere combines sex and art quite like France
National
Why you should never turn down an invitation to a French wedding
Sport
Discover the route of the 2015 Tour de France. There are a few surprises
Gallery
Ten changes that would make learning French so much easier
Culture
IN PICTURES: 'Glass ship' Vuitton ready to set sail in Paris
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se