France is ‘finished’ and ‘nothing works’: UK exec

UPDATED: The managing director of a British retail company has launched an astonishing tirade against France after visiting Paris this week, saying the country is “finished” and told investors to take their money out because "nothing works". He then apologized.

France is 'finished' and 'nothing works': UK exec
John Lewis managing director Andy Street, pictured here leaving 10 Downing Street does not like France, it's safe to say. Photo: Will Oliver/AFP

In the latest case of French bashing from across the English Channel, Andy Street, the managing director of upscale retail giant John Lewis, did not mince his words.

Shortly after visiting Paris this week to pick up an international retail award, Street told a group of entrepreneurs on Thursday that France was “finished” and advised investors to take their money out of a country where “nothing works”, the UK’s Times newspaper reported.

Not stopping there Street went on to say that the country was “sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat”.

“I have never been to a country more ill at ease, nothing works, and worse, nobody cares about it,” he said.

And the exec was similarly unimpressed by the Paris’s Eurostar station at Gare du Nord, which he described as the “squalor pit of Europe”. Although he might be the first to describe the rundown station in those terms, he’s probably not the first to think it.

“You get on the Eurostar from something I can only describe as the squalor pit of Europe, Gare du Nord, and you get off at a modern, forward-looking station (St Pancras),” Street told the conference in London.

He even slammed the hospitality at the World Retail Congress event in Paris, saying the wine and food were better at a London event.

He did however have some kind words for France for the “service”, which he described as “incomparable”.

From Nelson to Newsweek – A brief history of French bashing

It is not clear how long Street actually spent in Paris to justify his opinion that France was “finished” but perhaps his outburst was motivated by the fact his Eurostar train back to London from Paris was delayed.

Initially Street’s tirade was dismissed by a spokeswoman for John Lewis who told The Local that they were “tongue in cheek comments not to be taken seriously”.

We were told the managing director would not be making any more comment, but later on Friday, as news of his comments were being picked up in the French press, Street tried limit the damage, by apologizing unreservedly.

"The remarks I made were supposed to be lighthearted views, and tongue in cheek,” the executive said in an e-mailed statement .

“On reflection I clearly went too far. I regret the comments.”

Despite the regret Street's barbs will be embarrassing for a company, which has plans to launch a French language website and recently began deliveries to this side of the Channel.

Join the debate about Street's anti-French rant on our Facebook page

It was left to the French embassy in London to fire a riposte.

“France is the fifth biggest economy in the world, the second of Europe, and is the country with the fifth largest stock of foreign direct investment in the world, so obviously many foreign businesses do not seem to share Mr Street's view,” a spokesman told The Times.

“Also, saying that nothing works in France shows how wide of the mark those comments are.

"Everyone who has lived in France knows that it enjoys world-class public services. Public transport, for example, is excellent, and at a price that Mr Street is unlikely to find in many countries.”

This is not the first time the French embassy in London has stepped in to defend the reputation of the country.

In January this year the French outpost hit back against criticism from a British newspaper that the country is becoming “a tragedy” and in doing so has taken a swipe at the UK, the NHS and its transport system.

The embassy in London was aggrieved by a piece by City AM journalist Allister Heath titled “France’s failed socialist experiment is turning into a tragedy” in which in, now age-old fashion, he predicts France’s economic demise and the exodus of all its bright stars.

In their reply the embassy listed the reasons why France is not turning into a tragedy. You can click on the link below to see what they had to say.

Ten reasons why France is not turning into a tragedy

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OPINION: The notion that the French are not child-friendly is risible

A barbed column in a British newspaper that suggested the French are not child-friendly and their youngsters are more repressed than their British counterparts has angered many francophiles. Writer Colin Randall responds to the latest example of "frogbashing" from across the Channel.

OPINION: The notion that the French are not child-friendly is risible
Are French children almost Victorian in comparison to British rambunctious brood? Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Beneath a headline pandering to Middle England prejudice – “The one thing I don’t miss about our family holidays in France? The French” (paywalled) – a Daily Telegraph writer announced that her Francophile days were over.

Georgina Fuller told in a barbed column this week of grim restaurant experiences south of the Dordogne where French diners would tut-tut at her “unruly brood” of three small children. 

The details were enough to persuade someone editing her words to sum them up as an argument that few countries are less child-friendly than France. 

The writer complained that restaurants failed to open before 7pm. There were “no such things as a kids’ menu”. Painfully stuck in the mind was the memory of feeling mortified when her eldest child demanded fish fingers next to a table where a French boy of around four was happily tucking into a bowl of moules.

Unconvincingly presented by Ms Fuller as the light-hearted observations of one whose late mother had a fondly remembered home in Aquitaine, this was journalistic feat taking us back decades to lamb wars and the Sun’s “hop off you frogs” campaign.

And it took me back to the dying days of my own Telegraph career. At a leaving party in the paper’s grand apartment-cum-office overlooking the Tuileries gardens in Paris, the British ambassador kindly noted that my work revealed an understanding of, even a liking for, the French. “No wonder they fired you,” a fellow-journalist teased me later.

He was only half-joking. This week’s piece in the Telegraph confirmed that when stuck for an idea, a certain kind of columnist can usefully fill the void with a spot of frog-bashing,

In my own experience, it is a peculiarly British or rather English trait to gaze across the Channel in gleeful search of any opportunity to mock or belittle. 


OPINION: Cheap French-bashing is an old tune from British press and politicians

It can work both ways, but only up to a point. There is what the former president Jacques Chirac described to me as “l’amour violent”, not so much a rough love affair as a tempestuous relationship between near neighbours with a long history of falling out but also much to admire and respect in one another.

Chirac may have been overheard saying the UK’s only contributions to Europe were bad food and mad cow disease. But more broadly, I see little evidence of reciprocal kneejerk disdain for all things British, whereas the “love France, hate the French” line is trotted out at regular intervals, even when there are no disputes over a Covid vaccine or fishing grounds. 

Some expats have been known to indulge. Several years ago, a Home Counties woman living reluctantly in northern Brittany explained her unwillingness to learn French.  “Who on earth would I want to speak it to?” she asked as if it were the most natural reason imaginable for stubbornly resisting the integration that enriches so many lives – including, to be fair, those led by her more open-minded husband and son.

The notion that the French are not child-friendly, least of all in restaurants, is surely risible. There is certainly a case for suggesting their children are better behaved when eating out. This, to some extent, is because it is entirely normal to be included in such family outings from an early age. 

Why wouldn’t the four-year-old on the next table be enjoying his mussels? In resorts close to my home in the Var, I see children of a similar age happily dissecting shellfish. A snail producer in Loire-Atlantique once told me most French children had regularly eaten the delicacy by the time they were six or seven. There are children’s menus in France now but when my own children were small, they were content with shares of their parents’ food.

Georgina Fuller quotes with apparent approval a French acquaintance who felt he and his siblings were more repressed than British counterparts given carte blanche to express themselves freely.

 “Some of the silent children I saw in restaurants and local towns in France seemed almost Victorian in comparison to our rambunctious brood,” she writes.

Such generalisations are best treated as suspect. Even my late French father-in-law was accurate about only some of the British with his favoured mantra: “The French live to eat, you eat to live.” 

But if children, middle class or otherwise, are encouraged to regard fatty processed food as the height of their dining ambition, and maybe grab packets of crisps and sweet fizzy drinks between meals, it is no wonder they recoil from anything more interesting or nutritious.

The Fuller children may indeed flourish away from disapproval in France, when taken instead to Devon and to other continental destinations such as Ibiza, the Netherlands and Portugal. 

But their mother should not be surprised that the response of French people who have read of her resolve to steer clear of France can best be summed as bon débarras.

Colin Randall was the Daily Telegraph’s former Paris bureau chief and is now a freelance journalist and divides his time between London and the south of France.