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Wednesday 1 October 2014

David Robbins: Ireland- France: the end of l'affaire

As President Sarkozy threatens our tax regime, we're no longer in awe of our French friends, writes David Robbins

Published 20/08/2011 | 05:00

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Hugh Leonard has a lot to answer for. His classic 1985 accounts of a barge trip along the Canal du Midi in France inspired a generation of Irish tourists to forget about their two weeks in Rosslare and go "on the continent" instead.

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And for more than 20 years, a love affair between the Irish and all things French blossomed. This week, however, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy moved in on our corporate tax rate and borrowing levels, suddenly we're not feeling l'amour any more.

It was good while it lasted. For years, everything French seemed so thrillingly different, and not just different but better than at home.

Middle-class dinner parties rang with praise for French campsites, French wine, French food and even French bread. In the 1980s, there was no greater mark of social status than to own "a little place in the Dordogne".

"I first went there in the late 1980s," recalls one journalist who worked in Paris for several years. "Ireland was a grim place back then, and the contrast was extraordinary. Everything was bigger, better, more classy. They had their own way of doing things."

"There is so much to like about France," adds a Dublin solicitor who has been visiting France for 20 years. "The literature, the architecture, the whole way of life. Immediately you could see Ireland had been a poor country for a very long time while France had been a rich country for a very long time."

Visitors returning from France praised the health system, the transport system, the political system. One or two lamented the toilet system, but you can't have everything.

They had mistresses in France, and Gitanes, and foie gras, and Jean-Paul Sartre and Audrey Tautou. The different level of "cool" between Ireland and France was neatly summed up at a recent Council of Ministers meeting when tall, elegant (now former) French finance minister Christine Lagarde stooped to kiss our own Michael Noonan.

For their part, the French seemed to love us right back. They were our allies in Europe and lapped up our literature and music. Celtic studies is a favourite field for French academics and the Irish pubs in Paris are thronged to the rafters.

We were also united by a common hatred of the British. Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain's entry into the EEC, as the EU was then called, in 1963, famously uttering the single word "Non!" into the TV cameras at the crucial moment. That was fine by us.

Recently, however, there has been a distinct froideur. First, there was Thierry Henry's handball.

Then, last year's strikes over having to work until 62 (bless) brought the whole French social model under scrutiny.

And now, the French are cozying up to the Germans. Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are lecturing the rest of Europe like exasperated parents giving out to children who have spent all their pocket money on sweets.

Their calls for standardised corporate tax rates across the EU, and for borrowing levels to be enshrined in national constitutions, have set alarm bells ringing.

Suddenly, everything French isn't necessarily better. They have their own debt problem, and social issues related to their colonial past. They pay a high price for their health and education systems.

"Out of every €10,000 I earn, about €4,700 goes on social charges," laments a winegrower who moved from Ireland to France five years ago. "And that's before income tax. The system is not sustainable."

"The French," says an ex-pat who lives near Cahors in the south-west, "have a great balance between work and family time. But they pay for it dearly."

"The French talk Left, but they live Right," adds the Dublin solicitor.

The gloss may have gone off our love for the French, but thankfully many of them still harbour a little affection for us.

"There are no Americans, and precious few Germans," said one Connemara landlord this week, lamenting the poor tourist season, "but thank God for the French. If they stop coming, we're gone."

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