Valls takes on UK press over French caricature

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls visited London on a charm offensive on Monday where he met city bankers and his UK counterpart David Cameron, but perhaps his biggest challenge was when he met members of the British press - known for their penchant for French-bashing.

Valls takes on UK press over French caricature
Manuel Valls takes on the British press during this week's trip to London. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP

Valls’s whistlestop trip to London was a three-pronged attack designed to convince the various powers that his country was “not finished” and that his government was serious about making economic reforms.

He began with a speech to bankers in the City of London, where he told his audience in English that “my government is pro-business”, before meeting the UK Prime Minister David Cameron at Downing Street.

But perhaps Valls’s toughest mission was when he shared lunch with a group of influential UK journalists.

Certain elements of the UK media love nothing more than taking a swipe at France’s beleaguered economy and its seeming inability to reform, something Valls was eager to set straight.

From Nelson to Newsweek – A brief history of French-bashing

"Everyday I read your press, I listen and I watch what is being said about France," Valls said in London. "Too often I see in some of your newspapers some bias, prejudices and attacks as well."

In its report the UK's national broadcaster the BBC chose the headline "French PM meets David Cameron and attacks UK 'caricature'".

Valls’s visit was timely given the recent outburst by Andy Street, the director of retailer John Lewis, who had described France as “finished” adding that “nothing works” and “nobody cares”.

The French PM took aim at Street at a lunch with UK journalists.

"Just lunched with French PM Manuel Valls. Said Andy Street from John Lewis must have 'drunk too much beer' when slagged France as 'finished'," Daily Telegraph international business editor Ambrose Evans-Pritchard wrote on Twitter.

When trying to win over the British hacks, Valls made no attempt to try to cover up the lack of improvement in France's economic situation under the two years of Socialist government.

He was quite clear his Socialist government had not made the most of their time in power since being elected back in 2012.

Sky News political editor Faisal Islam took the view that "on France Valls was amazingly candid, talking about two lost years of Hollande presidency, and the social economic 'identity crisis'".

In an interview with BBC’s Newsnight programme on Monday night Valls told the British audience that France will get its house in order but not at any expense.

In a bid to overturn this perception in an interview with BBC's flagship Newsnight programme, Valls said his priority was growth, and that he would cut business costs, and allow shops in Paris and tourist areas to open on Sundays.

"I want to tell your audience, if our deficit is too high, we can reduce it, but at our speed while not losing sight of our priorities… indispensable for maintaining a good quality of life," Valls said.

Whether the French PM’s visit convinced British hacks to lay off France in future, only time will tell, but it did at least prompt certain newspapers and news sites to look more closely at the state of France.

The Daily Telegraph published several articles on the visit, including analysis entitled "Is France really finished?" by Kings College London political economy lecturer Alexandre Alfonso.

"The country is often considered as a universal case of economic failure, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, described as paralyzed, arrogant, delusional and hugely uncompetitive…So are the accusations true?" it asked.

The analysis examined cliches such as long lunch breaks, frequent strikes and a sinking economy, concluding that some were true, and others undeserved.

However, an acerbic comment piece by the newspaper's deputy editor Allister Heath was headlined "France's stagnation is tragic to watch".

"For all its reformist talk France's government will merely rearrange the deck chairs," Heath wrote. "Valls ought to be learning lessons from John Lewis, not rudely dismissing him."

The theme of challenging stereotypes also made its way to the International New York Times, which is based in Paris.

Its front page carried a profile of 36-year-old former investment banker and Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, with the headline "France's new banker-Socialist".

"Despite his youth, Mr. Macron has been a major force behind a recent shift by the politically struggling Mr. Hollande toward a more centrist economic policy for France," the profile read.

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