• 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
France sends more cops to quell migrant unrest
More police are headed to Calais to contain the growing migrant crisis there. Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP

France sends more cops to quell migrant unrest

After more violence at camps filled with UK-bound migrants around the French Port of Calais, France's top cop is sending more police to try to quell the desperate and tense situation there. READ  

Opinion - EU migrants
'France's new anti-terror law is just anti-Roma'
People demonstrate against the French government's immigration policy, especially their deportation of the Roma minority from France in 2010. Photo: Georges Gobet/AFP

'France's new anti-terror law is just anti-Roma'

Human Rights campaigners and immigrants' support groups have sounded the alarm about the small print in France’s new anti-terrorism bill, which they say will allow Paris to stop the freedom of movement of EU nationals, specifically members of the Roma community. READ  

Widow convicted for keeping hubby's ashes
A Frenchwoman was convicted of keeping her husband's cremated remains at home. Photo: Shuttstock

Widow convicted for keeping hubby's ashes

A grief-stricken French widow missed her dead husband so much she brought his ashes home from the family crypt, but she found out the hard way that in doing do she was actually breaking a law in France. READ  

'Forget Silicon Valley, it's better in France'
Is is easier to start a business in France than Silicon Valley? Photo: Luke Ma/Flickr, AFP

'Forget Silicon Valley, it's better in France'

As work began on the "world's largest" tech incubator in Paris, French billionaire and telecom mogul Xavier Niel says despite the moribund French economy and the reputation of its bureaucracy, it's actually easier to start a business in France than Silicon Valley. READ  

Police store human remains in kitchen fridge
Police store human remains in their kitchen fridge. Photo: Philippe Desmazes/AFP

Police store human remains in kitchen fridge

French police officers made a macabre discovery this week when they found samples of human organs had been stored alongside yoghurts and mustard in the kitchen fridge at their police station in western France. READ  

Four held in probe over French CEO's death
Christophe de Margerie, seen here shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP

Four held in probe over French CEO's death

Four members of staff at Moscow airport, including air traffic controllers have been held in connection with a plane crash that killed the French CEO of oil giant Total Christophe de Margerie. READ  

French PM Valls blasts 'backward-looking left'
French PM Manuel Valls wants to form a new party on the left. Photo: AFP

French PM Valls blasts 'backward-looking left'

In a bid to heal divisions on the left, France's prime minister Manuel Valls made a bold move this week by calling for the creation of a new "progressive" party or alliance of parties. READ  

French MPs poised to get powers to sack president
President may soon face a new threat in France. Photo: Fred Tanneau/AFP

French MPs poised to get powers to sack president

As if President François Hollande didn’t have enough to worry about, French lawmakers backed a measure this week that would allow them to legally sack the president in case of a “serious breach of duties”. READ  

Transparency: 'France lags far behind UK, US'
There is a certain lack of transparency in France compared to other countries, says Transparency International. Photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP

Transparency: 'France lags far behind UK, US'

A new study out this week slammed France for totally inadequate controls on lobbyists. The president of the group behind the report tells The Local how France is lagging in transparency and is playing catch up with other nations. READ  

IN PICTURES
French property face-off: The Vendée vs Limousin
The old barn or the old mill? What would you spend your money on? Photo: Leggett

French property face-off: The Vendée vs Limousin

Would you prefer a converted mill in the Vendée or a renovated barn in the Limousin region of France? Take a look at these two very different revamped properties in France that are on the market and decide what would you rather spend your money on. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
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
International
How a giant 'sex toy' earned an American artist a slap in Paris
National
'Unlike in the US the French don't put the blame on the poor'
Gallery
Cover up and don't be too Latin: French travel warnings for the US
Society
Macholand: The online uprising against sexism in France
Gallery
In pictures: The daily life of the 2,000 migrants in Calais
Culture
Erotic promo video earns the Musée d'Orsay our "Only in France" award
International
'I love the UK, but I could die getting there': Struggles of Calais migrants
National
Seven reasons why everyone should work in a bar in France
National
The cost of expat home comforts: How France compares to Europe
International
Why don't Calais migrants stay in France? The Local went to find out
National
What are the pros and cons of working as an au pair in France?
Society
Is France's generous welfare state about to get a little stingier?
Gallery
Extraordinary images of ordinary life in the poor Paris suburbs
Gallery
10 things expats love and loathe about life in France
National
So why don't many women in France breastfeed?
National
'Stop bashing La Belle France' - French PM tells UK press
International
UK warns Brits of 'high threat' from terrorism' in France
National
VIDEO: 'The Kama Sutra is not a dirty little text'
National
What Rome could teach Paris and vice versa
Gallery
What do foreign countries warn their citizens about when visiting France?
Gallery
IN IMAGES: Eiffel Tower opens new glass floor above Paris
Society
Is it really better to grow old in the UK and the US rather than France?
Gallery
It's that time if the year again: French sportsmen reveal (almost) all
Gallery
So what do the French find really weird about Anglos?
Travel
Paris museums to open seven days a week but unions are not happy
Culture
Caption contest: What happened when Jay Z met Sark O?
International
This explains why the French never seem to get a sense of déjà vu?
National
VIDEO: Here's a view from the Eiffel Tower you haven't seen before
Travel
Do Paris's iconic rooftops deserve Unesco World Heritage status?
Opinion
'France cannot reform, the pilots' strike showed us this'
National
'We just don’t work hard enough in France.' Is that true?
International
France has moved to beef up security in various public places
National
Hiking naked in France does not come risk-free
Culture
10 French customs that confuse Anglos
National
IN PICTURES: A look inside France's 'most notorious' prison
International
Isis urges killing of 'spiteful, dirty' French
National
Paris installs new device to stop 'love lock' craze
National
Paris cabby dies in vicious high-heel attack
National
'Paris is a sexy city, its beauty is inspiring'
Culture
Depardieu: ‘I drink 14 bottles of booze a day’
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