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.
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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.