Sniping pits old foes, new allies: France, Britain

December 16, 2011 - 3:25 PM

PARIS (AP) — France and Britain escalated an unusual bout of sniping Friday, as Prime Minister David Cameron took a swipe at religious freedoms in France while the French finance minister criticized the U.K. economy.

The latest cross-Channel squabbling — triggered in part over a tense European Union summit last week — bared efforts to win political points at home at a time when the financial crisis has pinched both governments.

The rabble-rousing also comes despite the lockstep military effort between the two countries in the NATO-led air campaign that helped spell the end of Moammar Gadhafi's longtime reign in Libya.

France and Britain, rivals for centuries, have been strong — if at times uncomfortable — allies since the 20th century. As western Europe's top military powers, they cooperate closely on defense and were joint pillars of the NATO-led air campaign that helped spell the end of Moammar Gadhafi's reign in Libya.

Friday's war of words got going as French Finance Minister Francois Baroin sought to deflect investor fears across the Channel to Britain, hours after the national statistics agency predicted France will slide into recession.

"We would prefer to be French right now than British, in terms of the economy," Baroin told Europe-1 radio.

Echoing comments from several top French officials this week, Baroin suggested ratings agencies should be paying more attention to Britain: "The economic situation of Britain is worrying today."

With French presidential and legislative elections on tap next spring, President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservatives have been on the defensive in recent weeks amid rumblings that France — the eurozone's No. 2 economy after Germany — may soon face a credit-rating downgrade.

Late Friday, Fitch ratings agency said it was keeping France's credit grade at Triple-A, but was revising its outlook on French sovereign debt to negative, from stable.

In Brussels last week, Cameron was the only European Union leader out of 27 to refuse to consider a new treaty that would impose tougher controls on state budgets to avert wider financial crisis. His decision left him isolated.

But in Britain, Cameron has been praised by many for his decision to hardball his European allies over their fiscal pact — and some opinion polls show his governing Conservative Party winning a clear boost from the tough stance.

In a speech on religion in Oxford, Cameron appeared to take a swipe at France, switching focus from the economy to tolerance for minorities in the two countries. "Many people tell me it is much easier to be Jewish or Muslim here in Britain than it is in a secular country like France," Cameron said.

Britain's deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, leader of the pro-European Liberal Democrats who opposed Cameron's move to snub the European pact, urged French Prime Minister Francois Fillon to end the sniping from Paris.

During a trip to Brazil on Thursday, Fillon — whose wife Penelope is Welsh — acknowledged to reporters that France's debt was too high, before pointing to "our British friends who are even more indebted than we are."

"For the moment, the ratings agencies don't seem to notice," he said.

Clegg's office said Fillon had called him from Brazil to say that "it had not been his intention to call into question" Britain's credit rating.

Meanwhile, Clegg told Fillon that the recent remarks by some French officials about the British economy were "simply unacceptable and that steps should be taken to calm the rhetoric," the statement said.

Late Thursday, French statistics agency Insee forecast that the country's economy would shrink this quarter and next amid a worsening outlook for the whole 17-nation eurozone. Insee predicted the economy would contract 0.2 percent in the fourth quarter and 0.1 percent in the first quarter of 2012, and forecast renewed but weak growth in the second quarter.

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David Stringer in London contributed to this report.