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Hollande and Cameron laugh off differences

French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron tried Tuesday to laugh off a rocky start to their relationship despite lingering differences over the eurozone crisis.

Hollande and Cameron laugh off differences
Présidence de la République/Pascal Segrette

Hollande also met Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle near London on his one-day visit, the socialist leader’s first trip to fellow NATO ally and EU heavyweight Britain since he was elected in May.

After talks at Downing Street, Hollande and Cameron stressed their shared ground on foreign policy issues and made light of earlier rows over economic policy and tax.

Hollande in particular joked about “British humour” when asked about the British premier’s comment last month that he would “roll out the red carpet” for French residents trying to avoid a planned top tax rate.

That came after the Conservative prime minister apparently snubbed Hollande when he made an election campaign visit to London in February.

“I appreciate humour and, above all, British humour. I was not at all offended, I was very happy to be offered a carpet,” Hollande told a joint press conference with Cameron.

Cameron replied: “As for red carpets there was one today for Francois only.”

The two leaders also tried to paper over the cracks on the eurozone, a source of strain as Cameron has angered many within the single currency area with repeated calls for them to tackle their debt crisis.

“We can see Europe as having different speeds, with each taking what it wants from the union,” Hollande said.

Cameron meanwhile said he wanted there to be “cooperation” between Britain and France — and welcomed Hollande in French at the start of the press conference.

“There will always be areas where we don’t agree, but we’ve found much common ground today,” Cameron said.

“We both want European growth, we both want to stand tall in the world on issues like Syria, or Libya or Iran, we both want to see cooperation between our governments and people, so I’m very happy that we’re going to build a strong relationship.”

The French leader said Paris and London had “converging views” on Syria, and said they would be pushing Russia and China to back tougher action against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Britain’s press on Wednesday was unimpressed with the public show of bonhomie, with the high-circulation Daily Mail running with the headline “Hollande hits out at PM’s call for French firms to come to UK”.

In a similar vein, the Financial Times carried the headline “Hollande clashes with Cameron over tax” while the The Daily Telegraph ran with “Cameron frowns as a French cold front hits No 10”.

After his meeting with Cameron Hollande headed to Windsor Castle, west of London, to take tea with the queen during a half-hour meeting.

The 86-year-old monarch, who was wearing a yellow dress, shook hands cordially with the French leader before presenting him with two gifts — framed and signed portraits of herself and her husband Prince Philip.

“The queen gave him a very warm welcome,” a spokesman for the French presidency said.

The warm welcome for Hollande, including a guard of honour at the Foreign Office with lines of soldiers in bearskin hats and red tunics, came after months of frosty relations between the French and British leaders.

Economic issues have been the greatest stumbling block, underlining the ideological differences between Cameron’s focus on austerity and Hollande’s commitment to boosting growth through spending.

Since Hollande defeated right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy for the presidency in May, he has quickly moved to cement his left-wing credentials, boosting taxes on the rich, vowing to create thousands of public-sector jobs and allowing for slight spending increases.

Cameron continues to urge members of the eurozone — of which Britain is not a part — to cut spending and take action to resolve the economic crisis that is severely affecting his country’s economy.

He has refused to back the European fiscal discipline pact, which he fears may compromise the City of London’s position as Europe’s leading financial centre and has regularly voiced his fierce opposition to a financial transactions tax advocated by Paris.

The two leaders largely sidestepped the issues in their press conference, with Hollande also softening his tone on a proposed hike in the levy on foreign-owned second homes, which raised hackles in Britain.

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FRANCOIS HOLLANDE

Here’s the latest in France’s presidential race

President Francois Hollande warned would-be successors they should cleave closely to Europe as it was "impossible" that France could contemplate going its own way.

Here's the latest in France's presidential race
French centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron in Reunion. Photo: Eric Feferberg/AFP

Here are three things that happened in the campaign on Saturday:

Let them throw eggs

Conservative candidate Francois Fillon, under pressure over allegations of fake parliamentary jobs for the family which have hit his poll ratings, received a chaotic reception on a trip to the southern Basque region where some protesters pelted him with eggs.

Fillon, who has accused Hollande of helping foment a smear campaign against him amid claims his wife was on the public payroll but did little for her salary, ran the gauntlet in the small town of Cambo-les-Bains.

Locals demanding an amnesty for radical Basque nationalists banged pots and pans, hurled abuse and objects.

“The more they demonstrate the more the French will back me,” Fillon insisted before meeting with local officials.

Warning on Europe

President Francois Hollande warned would-be successors they should cleave closely to Europe as it was “impossible” that France could contemplate going its own way.

In a barb aimed at far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, Hollande said: “So some want to quit Europe? Well let them show the French people they would be better off alone fighting terrorism without the indispensable European coordination…

“Let them show that without the single currency and (single) market there would be more jobs, activity and better purchasing power,” Hollande said in Rome where he attended the ceremonies marking the EU's 60th anniversary.

Le Pen, favoured in opiniion polls to reach the second-round run-off vote in May, wants France to dump the euro, but Hollande said that would lead to devaluation and loss of purchasing power as he warned against nationalist populism.

'Not Father Christmas'

French centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, seen in polls as beating Marine Le Pen in the May 7 run-off, was in Reunion, a French overseas department in the Indian Ocean, where alongside discussing local issues, he told voters he was “not Father Christmas.”

“I don't have the solution to all problems and I am not Father Christmas,” the 39-year-old former economy minister and banker admitted, saying he had not come to make “promises.”

He indicated he would focus on education as a priority on an island where around one in five youths are illiterate.