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Sacre bleu! Le Street apologises after insulting ‘hopeless’ France

Sacre bleu! Le Street apologises after insulting ‘hopeless’ France

🕔06.Oct 2014

In almost four years as chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership Andy Street has hardly put a foot wrong.

Acting as an interface between the business and political worlds clearly calls for diplomacy as well as an ability to think strategically. Street has managed to keep the LEP cantering along the job creation road through Birmingham enterprise zones and growth fund bids, while balancing his day job as managing director of the John Lewis chain of department stores.

He’s even been able, despite being a well-known Conservative supporter, to gain the admiration of Sir Albert Bore, the Labour leader of Birmingham city council. Bore rates Street, even if he doesn’t think quite so highly of the rest of the LEP board.

All the more surprising, therefore, that Street should fall into that old elephant trap of insulting the French.

We’ve all done it, of course. Who can say that they’ve never found the Gallic ‘way of life’ somewhat challenging with a short working week and the fact that most high streets resemble ghost towns between midday and three when the French head off for a well-earned snooze, or something else.

But few people in public life can so effectively have let France have both barrels as Street did in the speech he delivered at a John Lewis awards ceremony.

He has subsequently apologised for his “tongue in cheek” remarks, although it must have been little surprise to an experienced operator that such an inflammatory speech in a public venue was likely to have been picked up by the media.

Labelling France as “sclerotic, hopeless and downbeat” and a “finished country where nothing works and worse nobody cares about it”, Street’s comments quickly caused a storm on Twitter and other social media.

To make matters worse, Street advised anyone with investments in France “to get your money out” as quickly as possible, including presumably John Lewis which is in the process of boosting its business with a new French language website.

Ironically, just as a media storm erupted over Street’s remarks, Birmingham city council chief executive Mark Rogers was demanding that the council develop a “John Lewis model” of governance. Without the insults, presumably.

It was all too much for the French establishment, which is not renowned for a sense of humour when it comes to criticism. And with Street’s attack coming just days before a visit to Britain by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, defenders of La belle France went swiftly into action.

Jean-Louis Missika, deputy mayor of Paris, described Street’s statements as “false and idiotic”.

Guillaume Maujean, the editor of French financial daily Les Échos, said the 50-year-old John Lewis chief’s comments were “grotesque” French-bashing.

The Franco-British Council said Street’s attack was an example of “a festering antagonism with the French and France from the British”.

The French embassy in London issued a statement: “France is the fifth biggest economy in the world, the second in Europe … so obviously many foreign businesses do not seem to share Mr Street’s view.

“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.”

There was, though, some support for Street’s stance from a predictable source – Germany.

Hans Werner-Sinn, president of Germany’s Institute for Economic Research, warned that France’s failure to deliver supply side reforms to its economy could be the final nail in the coffin for the euro.

It was vital that France shrink its swollen public sector, which currently represents 55 per cent of GDP by at least 10 percentage points. Mr Werner-Sinn added: “French industry has been dying for decades. The government sector now has a quarter of the workforce, twice that of Germany. Hiding the unemployment in government offices is not a healthy solution.”

Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, backed Street’s view in an interview with The Guardian: “The French economy is a disaster area and I think his analysis is basically right. I have certainly worked in companies that wouldn’t invest in France because of its rigid and inflexible labour market.

“France is protectionist and protectionism is something that has to be fought. Sclerotic is a legitimate word to use with regard to France and other parts of the Eurozone as well.”

Meanwhile, Lichfield MP Michael Fabricant, a close friend of Mr Street, cast any attempt at diplomacy aside by taking to Twitter: “Anyone travelling on the filthy, graffiti-covered Paris Metro will agree with the boss of John Lewis”, he said in a tweet since deleted.

Another Fabricant tweet read: “French embassy getting their pantaloons in a twist. France is in recession and over 360,000 French working in UK because of mass unemployment.”

And from a left-wing perspective, Professor David Bailey from Aston University used his Facebook account to publicise an article on The Guardian website that suggests the UK economy is performing better than the French economy, but that ‘lifestyle’ benefits make France a better place than Britain.

Our French cousins have a shorter working week, unemployment is lower, welfare benefits are more generous, child care costs are lower and university fees are almost non-existent. Public transport in France is far cheaper than in Britain, there are four times as many Michelin-starred restaurants, and more hours of sunshine.

All in all, as Mr Street probably wouldn’t say, vive La France!

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