- Kuwait Times Extra
LONDON: French President Francois Hollande yesterday began his first official visit to Britain, where he will hold talks with Prime Minister David Cameron aimed at smoothing over recent differences. The Socialist leader arrived on a French military jet at the RAF Northolt airbase in London for the one-day visit, during which he will also be received by Queen Elizabeth II at her Windsor Castle residence.
Hollande, who came to power in May, began his visit by meeting members of the sizeable French community-with a French population estimated at around 350,000, London has been dubbed “the sixth French city.” Splits over tax, financial regulation and the euro-zone crisis are set to dominate the talks with Conservative Cameron, who apparently snubbed Hollande when he made an election campaign visit to London in February. Cameron riled the French last month when he said he would “roll out the red carpet” for any French high earners fleeing Hollande’s plan to impose a 75 percent tax rate on top salaries.
Britain later said the comment was a joke, while Hollande said it was “of no importance.” Cameron’s office insisted the two would also discuss more consensual issues during their talks and 90-minute working lunch at his Downing Street residence. “The agenda will focus on the range of bilateral issues,” a Downing Street spokesman said. “I would expect them to cover the economy, the situation in the euro-zone, a number of foreign policy issues and our ongoing cooperation on defense.” The pair held their first bilateral meeting before the G8 summit in Washington last May.
Britain and France share a number of foreign policy objectives, and the French presidency said they would be discussing the crisis in Syria and the Iranian nuclear program in particular.
Cameron and Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy signed a Franco-British defense deal in 2010 under which the two countries agreed to share the use of their aircraft carriers. But that pact too ran into trouble earlier this year when Britain’s choice of fighter jet for its future carriers made it impossible for French warplanes to use the ships. Economic issues look set to pose the greatest stumbling block, however, underlining the ideological differences between Cameron’s focus on austerity and Hollande’s commitment to boosting growth through spending.
Cameron continues to urge members of the euro-zone-of which Britain is not a part-to 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. He has also regularly voiced his fierce opposition to a financial transactions tax advocated by Paris. Under pressure from the so-called eurosceptic wing of his Conservative party, Cameron recently called for “less Europe,” and he has not ruled out a referendum on whether Britain should redefine its relationship with Brussels.
Britain’s attitude has irked Hollande, who in May deplored London’s “relative indifference” to the fate of the euro area and accused Britain of being “shy” about regulation. After his meeting with Cameron, and a press conference due at 1315 GMT, Hollande will head for Windsor Castle, just outside London, for a 30-minute private meeting with the queen. The monarch will speak French during the meeting, official sources said, while Hollande will speak English during the talks with Cameron. Since Hollande defeated right-winger 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.- AFP
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