Blair just can't fathom the French

It is a curious phenomenon that a British Prime Minister so commendably fluent in French has such a miserable understanding of the French. What he manifestly fails to understand is that the French are not difficult; they're just different. And, what is more, they are probably less different than the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish. It is not enough to seek compromises between competing proposals, one has to grapple with the French mind.

Essentially the French are political rather than financial. They see financial strength as one of the components of social solidarity rather than as a means to private affluence. They have regarded the increasing prosperity of the country as inexorable and this mind set has caused globalisation and outsourcing of jobs to come as a greater shock in France than in England.

Of course there are wealthy individuals in France, and certainly there is a desire to prosper, but it is not the driving force that it is in Britain, and, even more so, in America. For instance, it is only in recent years that even large stores have begun to remain open over the lunch break.

One can note that French towns and villages invariably have a number of empty properties, more or less in a state of disrepair. Despite their increasing value they are not for sale! They are regarded as part of one's family heritage and must remain so.

Similarly the economics of the small restaurant or individual wine producer have always baffled me. Any back of the envelope calculation would show the impossibility of making money and yet there is often a quiet affluence and pride in producing and in providing a valued service.

Aspects of French society that infuriate and frustrate the Anglo-Saxon mind are accepted as being part of the republican values that are to be cherished. For instance, there is an advance list of forthcoming strikes published in Paris so that one can organise one's diary accordingly. Sure the Parisians moan about the inconvenience but there isn't the intense determination to crack down on trade unions that, rightly or wrongly, marked 1980s Britain.

Again it is politics not finance that is paramount, and the class base of political parties is less marked than in Britain. The pleasant market town of Excideuil deep in the Perigord - the equivalent of, say, Thirsk - has had a Communist mayor for ages, as currently has the easy going Mediterranean town of Sete. It is true that the frustrations of living in the "Red Belt" of high rise satellite suburbs around Paris have undermined French social solidarity. Too late they discovered that it could not be simply transplanted. Its allegiances have shifted and some 40% of the Front National's support arrives direct from former Communist supporters.

All this has implications for the European Union and for Anglo-French relations. To the French, with their history of three wars with Germany within seventy years, European integration was perceived as the crucial means of ensuring a permanent peace. Just as for the people of Spain, Portugal and Greece in the 1970s it was vital as a means of entrenching democracy after years of Fascist or military rule. Significantly, in the recent French referendum on the EU constitution the older generation voted "Yes" - it was the postwar generations that gave the "No" vote its victory.

The long and often tortuous progress towards the European Union was always driven more by political imperatives than by financial needs. One of its founding fathers, Jean Monnet, remarked that "had it been based on economics it would have foundered years ago." What is amazing is not that the member states have regular rows but that the EU survives at all. If one had said in 1945 at the end of the war, or in 1970 with Franco and Salazar running Spain and Portugal, or even in 1989, pre-Gorbachev, that in 2005 there would be a union of twenty-five democratic countries in Western and Central Europe, dedicated to breaking down borders and barriers, most people would have been incredulous.

What does all this mean for Tony Blair and the current battle over the British rebate from the EU? It certainly means that the case for the £3.2 billion has to be based on objective facts rather than the cringe making memory of Margaret Thatcher's "I want my money back." It can be a useful lever to the acceleration of changes in agricultural support, so cherished by the French, but which have, in fact, been significantly reduced in recent years.

Change there must be, but, say the French, not at a pace which destabilises their rural communities. Change there can be, at a price, as the transformation of the Languedoc vineyards showed, and we Brits need to recognise the different styles and priorities of our two countries. Our case for financial gains from Europe is not helped by stridency and by competition between the shrill voices of domestic party leaders competing to show who can be the most macho. For once Peter Mandelson's advice on tactics should be heeded. Keep talking and seek allies.

There is a curious ambivalence in the relationship with out nearest neighbour. Frankly, as one who has many French friends and who enjoys spending time in France, I do not recognise the country so often caricatured in the tabloid press. Nor have I ever experienced the negative attitudes to the British graphically described to me by visitors to France. My problem is resisting the entreaties to stay longer. Certainly the French can be frustrating and even infuriating, but then so can my English friends - and family!

The French can also be very endearing. Could you imagine parking meters in Britain not operating for two hours at lunchtime? Also, a year or two back, my wife and I decided to use the old, slow, Beziers to Paris railway line for a Sunday out. I consulted the timetable and discovered one could get as far as St Flour - thus crossing Eiffel's famous viaduct at Garabit - with forty-five minutes to wait for the train back. I duly went to the ticket office in Beziers and asked for two day returns to St Flour. The booking clerk consulted the timetable and said that she couldn't sell me the tickets. I replied that I had also checked and that the round trip was possible. "Ah yes," she replied, "But you won't have time to eat in St Flour." I had to promise to take a picnic!

15 June 2005